June 17, 2011 > Watershed war
By William Marshak
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has officially reopened the review and comment period for the Environmental Impact Report for the State Route 84 Niles Canyon II Safety Improvement Project. This multifaceted project has stirred much controversy and opposition over its impact to the environment and natural beauty along the scenic highway.
Originally conceived as a three-tiered approach to widening for safety reasons, the $88 million plan has been criticized by local residents and environmental advocates for a skewed interpretation of traffic statistics, despoiling the landscape through deforestation and destruction of natural habitat. Tree removal pursuant to phase I of the project was a stark reminder of changes yet to come in phase II and III. Questions of the effects of this project on Alameda Creek, a vital source of water to the Tri-City area and in the process of restoration as a fish habitat have also been raised. Fremont's City Council was highly critical of the notification process used by Caltrans when initiating the project.
In light of increasing public outcry and legal challenges, Caltrans has now extended the public comment period for the environmental review process of the proposed "safety-improvement project" from 0.5 mile east of Palomares Road to the SR-84/Interstate 680 interchange in Sunol until August 5, 2011. The project's second phase, scheduled to begin in fall 2013, includes removal of many more trees and installation of retaining walls.
Caltrans cites traffic studies showing that between 1999 and 2009, there were 455 traffic collisions, 10 of which resulted in fatalities and 237 of which resulted in injuries. Proposed safety improvements include 8-ft. shoulders, center and shoulder rumble strips, and improved sight distances. To make room, slopes will be cut back or filled in at several locations for installation of approximately 1.8 miles of retaining walls.
Opponents, notably the Alameda Creek Alliance counter these arguments saying that widening and road "improvements" will entice those using the canyon roads to drive faster, increasing accidents at the price of degradation of the natural flora and fauna of the environment including spawning sites for steelhead trout and salmon along Alameda Creek.
The public is invited to send letters to Caltrans for official comment which will be recorded and addressed in the final Environmental Document. Caltrans has noted in its remarks that "the most beneficial comments" should address, "Specific alternatives or mitigation measures that would provide better ways to avoid or mitigate any potential environmental effects of the project Concerns that are not previously addressed in the environmental document Inaccuracies or missing information Statistical data or facts to support your concern."
Caltrans is required to respond to valid comments either through changes of its plans and designs or a detailed explanation of why it is not possible to do so.
Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent by postal mail to Caltrans District 4, Attn: V. Shearer, PO Box 23660 MS 8B, Oakland, CA 94623-0660. Comments must be received by 5:00 p.m. on August 5, 2011.
Additional information about the Niles Canyon Widening Project and opposition to it can be found at www. savenilescanyon.org