Battle brewing over highway expansion |

Battle brewing over highway expansion

Two sides are gathering for a possible tug-of-war with South Lake Tahoe’s lifeline, U.S. Highway 50. And although the area of contention is in eastern Sacramento County, the outcome could go a long way toward defining the future of transportation and air quality issues on the West Slope, and ultimately those in Lake Tahoe.

The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an environmental law firm based in San Francisco, is considering a lawsuit to block an undisclosed portion of $98.4 million worth of road improvement and transportation projects in eastern Sacramento County. Among those projects are federally approved carpool lanes on a stretch of U.S. 50 between Sunrise Boulevard and El Dorado Hills Boulevard.

The road projects were recently approved by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, an organization that disperses federal road improvement funds on the state level. SACOG approved 125 road improvement projects in Sacramento County, including new car pool lanes on that stretch of U.S. 50. Among other projects are new carpool lanes on Interstate 80, and the widening of Watt Avenue in Sacramento.

But two environmental groups are contemplating a lawsuit to block the projects, claiming that many of them would produce illegally high smog levels and contribute to urban sprawl.

“We are saying that it’s time to actively combat urban sprawl in the Sacramento area,” said Joe Brecher, an attorney on retainer for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco. Brecher is heading the legal case on behalf of the Environmental Council of Sacramento and the NoWay LA Coalition.

“(A lawsuit) is still in the contemplative stages at this point,” Brecher said. “We will be making up our minds in the next week or so.”

Environmentalists, Brecher said, have been pleading for years for SACOG to change its emphasis from private transportation to alternative transportation options, such as light rail systems and bicycle projects.

“But (SAGOC) has been totally unreceptive to that,” Brecher said. “We think that the emphasis should be getting people out of their cars, instead of putting more cars on the highway. We have voiced these concerns over recent years, but have been rebuffed every time. So now it may be time to take judicial action.”

SAGOC officials, however, maintain that their projects have passed a rigorous air quality conformity analysis, and have been approved by the federal government.

“The government gives complete guidelines for air quality compliance,” said SAGOC Chairman Tom Stallard. “If we are not in compliance with clean air standards through 2005, we lose federal funding.

“If indeed there is a lawsuit, that will be unfortunate,” he said. “People in this region have to cooperate with each other. Lawsuits take time, energy and resources, and with the challenges we face no one can afford that.”

But the environmentalists think that they have an excellent chance to win. In January, a Sacramento judge responded to a somewhat similar lawsuit in El Dorado County by throwing out the county’s General Plan, ruling that it did not comply with state environmental laws.

“We’re seeing a never-ending series of freeway interchanges, widenings and so on, and our intent is to put a stop to that,” Brecher said.

A few years ago it would not have been such a big issue. But U.S. 50 between eastern Sacramento and El Dorado Hills has become a rush-hour headache lately, as many people have escaped urban sprawl in the central valley to live in the Sierra foothills.

“Those people still have to get back and forth to work,” Stallard said. “People change jobs more than they change homes. Could you imagine U.S. 50 if they had kept it as a one-lane road, as it used to be? Communities are changing, and we have to keep up with those changes.”

Stallard stressed that 13 percent of the allocated funds are for bicycle projects.

“We’ve done our best to include environmentalists in the process,” he said. “But many of them maintain a cynical posture.”

“This could really impact Tahoe in the future,” he said. “You live in a beautiful place that is unique in its limited access options. What happens down near Sacramento on U.S. 50 will ultimately affect Tahoe.”

El Dorado County is not currently in the SACOG region, but that could soon change. In early July, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to rejoin the SACOG region, after a 10-year absence. The application is under review by the city of Sacramento.

As it stands now, the suit would be against SAGOC, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration.

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