Gov.’s highway plans rile environmentalists

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Efforts to bridge California’s budget abyss collapsed last week as talks hit a formidable roadblock -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demand that long-standing environmental protections be stripped from 10 big highway projects.

The governor’s aides say his plan would give the financially strained state a $1.2-billion economic boost and create 22,000 jobs over the next three years. Environmentalists say the governor is backpedaling from the heavily publicized push to curb global warming that landed him on magazine covers delicately balancing a globe on a beefy finger.

Schwarzenegger is proposing that the California Department of Transportation forge ahead with some construction projects that are tied up in court over environmental issues. One is a $165-million carpool-lane expansion on U.S. 50 in Sacramento that a judge has delayed because of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it could generate, among other concerns.


Protections would also be lifted on a freeway-widening project through an ecologically sensitive area of coastal San Diego County and on a controversial plan to drill a tunnel into the Berkeley Hills. And Schwarzenegger wants to empower a panel of his appointees to waive environmental rules on other projects.

Schwarzenegger has infuriated the Sierra Club and other groups with such proposals and with a letter he sent to President-elect Barack Obama last week asking that federal environmental reviews be waived on the highway projects.

“This is a stunning turnaround by the governor, and I am baffled by it,” said Tom Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters.

Schwarzenegger says that the projects can be completed without environmental ruin and that with the incoming Obama administration proposing to pump huge sums into public-works projects, California needs to be ready to jump.

“What is important here is not to have projects ready in three years from now, which can happen with the environmental approvals and other kind of red tape that you go through,” Schwarzenegger said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “So I think it is important to see what projects you have ready to go now.”

Administration officials note that the state has waived environmental rules in the past, including for the reconstruction of two bridges on the 5 Freeway shattered by the Northridge earthquake -- a move that allowed rebuilding to be done in 66 days. It is appropriate to fast-track projects now, they say, because of the state’s economic emergency.


Schwarzenegger is proposing to largely exempt the 10 highway projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, a 1970 law requiring review of big projects and efforts to offset any deleterious effects on the surroundings.

Under Schwarzenegger’s plan, environmentalists would not be alone in losing influence over how projects are constructed. The power of the governor’s own resource protection agencies to intervene would also be weakened: A panel of administration appointees would be able to waive state regulations.

Among the projects at issue is a $102-million carpool lane on Interstate 805 in San Diego County. It still lacks a state Coastal Commission permit and must be reviewed to determine if endangered species would be harmed.

Adams noted that several of the projects propose work on California 99 in the San Joaquin Valley, which environmentalists say has some of the worst air pollution in the nation. To Adams, it’s a simple equation: More traffic equals more pollution.

The most contentious projects are tangled in litigation, including the delayed Sacramento carpool lane project and a $420-million effort to bore a tunnel through the Berkeley Hills to ease heavy Bay Area traffic on California 24. A judge is expected to rule in the spring on a lawsuit over possible effects of noise and pollution from the tunnel project on two nearby schools.

But if lawmakers eventually relent and agree to the governor’s wishes, state legislation would trump those legal decisions and the projects could move ahead.


The Democrats who dominate the Legislature have so far demurred.

They are offering instead a fast-tracking process for the projects that conservationists find more acceptable. Administration officials say that will not get construction moving quickly enough.

The standoff, which comes as the state is on the verge of running out of cash, has pitted two of the governor’s core constituencies -- backers in big business and allies in the movement to protect the oceans and air -- against each other. Schwarzenegger has insisted he can balance the two and make California a model economy that is both green and prosperous.

Environmentalists say he has lost that balance.

“The governor has a green streak, but it’s in conflict with his desire to pour more concrete and build more highways,” said Sierra Club California director Bill Magavern. “We don’t buy the idea that to stimulate the economy, we need to weaken standards that protect the public health and environment.”

Magavern and others contend that the state has plenty of more ecologically friendly construction projects that should go to the front of the line. They point to a report last month by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which suggested that the transportation projects spotlighted by Schwarzenegger face formidable odds even if the state’s environmental rules are waived.

The report noted that eight of them still face lengthy federal environmental reviews and design preparations that would delay construction. A better alternative, the report said, would be pressing ahead with 122 less contentious projects around the state involving rehabilitation of battered pavement, bridges and highway drainage.

Environmentalists have a list of scores of other “green” projects -- mostly improvements to public bus and rail transit systems -- that are ready to go but lack funding.


“Nobody is opposed to getting good jobs on the ground now, but we can do that without circumventing environmental protections,” said Kathryn Phillips, a policy advocate for the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Waiving those protections could set a dangerous precedent, Adams and other environmentalists said.

For years, Republican lawmakers have been trying to relax the state’s environmental rules in budget negotiations, in which they hold enough votes to block the spending plan. If the governor wins exemptions for the 10 projects, GOP lawmakers will almost certainly push for more, said Adams.

“They want to hijack the budget process to enforce minority rule on the environment,” he said.

Republican lawmakers say they’re trying to add a dose of common sense to a process that too often adds unnecessary delays to road-building and other work.

As for Schwarzenegger, administration officials say he is merely trying to get shovels in the ground to stimulate the economy. They say he has no intention of dismantling the state’s environmental laws.


“For anyone to challenge this governor’s environmental credentials is beyond me,” said Caltrans Director Will Kempton.

“What the governor is talking about is not doing away with environmental controls. . . . We think we have an economic emergency. We think that emergency requires we look for ways to create jobs,” he said.