Governor Calls for 4th Bore CEQA Exemption

Monday, January 5, 2009

Governor Schwarzenegger has used the current state budget crises to add one more brick to the wall of distrust between Californians and their government leaders. He has told the Legislature that he’ll veto any budget bill that doesn’t exempt the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore and other controversial infrastructure projects from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). His excuse is that these projects need to move forward quickly. “We’ve got to act on behalf of the people,” he said, adding further, “and what we have to do is, we have to create jobs as quickly as possible, stimulate the economy.” But exempting these huge projects from environmental review would be penny wise and pound foolish.

The Caldecott Tunnel Fourth Bore project is a prime example of what’s wrong with this approach. It is precisely because Caltrans failed to address the impacts this project will have on the communities and environment along the Highway 24 corridor that the Caldecott Tunnel Fourth Bore Coalition (FBC) filed a legal challenge under CEQA. The Governor wants a complete CEQA exemption for this and other major construction projects, with no attempt to address the environmental damage that would result.

Using the budget crisis to eliminate environmental safeguards is tantamount to extortion. It also ignores the benefits CEQA has provided in the past; for example, replacing Caltrans’ damaging proposal for a Devil’s Slide bypass on Highway 1 by what everyone now agrees is a far better tunneling project.

Project’s EIR Disregarded Rockridge Schools

The issue with the Caldecott Improvement Project is not whether a fourth bore should be built, but to acknowledge and  mitigate the project’s impacts on nearby schools, residents, and the natural environment. Caltrans’ environmental impact report (EIR) for the project closed its eyes to the project’s impacts. The EIR, in promoting the project’s traffic benefits, considered traffic operations over the entire length of the Highway 24 corridor.

Yet, at the same time, Caltrans refused to include in the EIR’s analysis the impacts on schools and other sensitive receptors immediately adjacent to Highway 24, claiming they were too far from the actual construction. Claremont Middle and Anthony Chabot Elementary Schools, as well as other local schools and parks, are already subjected to hazardous air and noise pollution impacts from the highway, impacts that will be made even worse by this project. Excluding the noise and air-quality impacts of project generated traffic on these schools, as well as on thousands of other nearby residents is unconscionable.

A governor who is allegedly passionate about helping kids and who claims a leadership role in creating a greener environment should not be offering Caltrans a blank check to do the damage and not the repair the damage.

The Governor also ignores the fact that measures to mitigate project impacts will also involve construction and, indeed, will increase the number of jobs the project will generate. If the Governor is truly interested in effective economic stimulus, he should include mitigating the adverse impacts of the project on the health and safety of children, pedestrians, bicyclists, and residents along the corridor.

Exempting the fourth bore from CEQA means the project will be built with total disregard for its environmental costs. Indeed, the Governor’s blanket CEQA exemption may even eliminate the token mitigation Caltrans had agreed to in order to obtain the City of Oakland’s non-opposition to the project.

If our governor truly believes in protecting and improving the environment, he needs to retract this unconscionable exemption proposal and restore our trust in his leadership. If the voters cannot trust the State government here, what are we voters to think when the Governor asks our support for other potentially damaging projects like a peripheral canal or a new dam?

We must keep our environmental protections in place and build wisely, not rashly.