Highway 50 project would cost $100 million | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Highway 50 project would cost $100 million

A potential legal tussle between Sacramento environmentalists and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments over U.S. Highway 50 traffic has observers in El Dorado County sitting up and paying attention.

Our story so far: Two environmental groups have threatened to file a lawsuit to block a portion of approved road improvement projects on U.S. 50 in eastern Sacramento. The projects, which would include new carpool lanes on the stretch between Sunrise Boulevard and El Dorado Hills Boulevard, would come at a total cost of $98.4 million and were recently approved by SACOG – the agency entrusted with dispersing federal funds for road improvement.

But the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an environmental law firm based in San Francisco, is threatening legal action on behalf of the two environmental groups, claiming that SACOG has ignored environmentalists’ pleas to shift emphasis toward alternative transportation in the Sierra foothills.

Will the issue go to court? We’ll know later this month.

“It’s something that we in El Dorado County certainly have been watching,” said Bill Center, a former El Dorado County supervisor who is a member of the Measure Y Control Traffic Congestion Committee. The committee was a driving force behind the successful Measure Y campaign this past November; the initiative which requires developers to account for 100 percent of road costs connected with their projects.

“(The Measure Y Committee) has some fundamental concerns here, and we plan to talk with ECOS (the Environmental Council of Sacramento) about the issue.”

ECOS and the NoWay LA Coalition are the two groups threatening the suit.

“Those carpool lanes are important in light of already approved and existing development,” Center said. “At the same time, we realize that carpool lanes by themselves are not going to solve our traffic and air pollution problems. Finger pointing isn’t going to help. We need proper planning.”

As traffic levels continue to grow in eastern Sacramento County, residents and businesspeople in El Dorado County – including South Lake Tahoe – look on with increasing trepidation.

Say you’re sitting at home in the Bay Area and decide you want to take a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe, stopping off first in the Apple Hill area in Placerville. You leave on Friday after work.

If it were 10 years ago, it would be clear sailing from the East Bay all the way to the foothills. And if one left Apple Hill after 7 p.m. or so, there wouldn’t be much difficulty driving to Tahoe.

“But these days it can be a six-hour-long traffic jam,” Center said. “It starts at 3 p.m. in the Bay Area, then you have slowdowns in Vacaville, Sacramento, Davis, and now eastern Sacramento. Tourist traffic is about the same as it was before, but now there’s a lot more commuter traffic.

“My concern is that people’s reaction to this will be to not come up to Tahoe at all, or just make it a day trip on Saturday,” Center said. “And no resort destination can survive solely on day-trip business.”

So the position of the Measure Y Committee is that they would like to see the carpool lanes put in, without the threatened legal hassles. But they would also like to see the emphasis shift toward other traffic solutions, such as a light rail system.

“The thing we would like to see is a slight shift in attitude with the regional planners, so they might look more toward light rail solutions,” Center said. “You know, an Amtrak line to El Dorado Hills, and then a bus system to Tahoe is not pie in the sky. A lot of people would do that. If you could develop a fairly seamless transportation system from the Bay Area to Tahoe, it would solve so many problems.”

But such a system could be many years away.

“(Light rail) is a good solution for the long term, but in the short term we have to consider other solutions,” said El Dorado County Fifth District Supervisor Dave Solaro. “I drive down in that area a lot, and the traffic can really get backed up. New carpool lanes would help Lake Tahoe.”

The trend in Sacramento and El Dorado counties is indeed toward more cars, said Jerry Martin of the California Air Resources Board – an agency which tracks air pollution levels throughout the state, and controls and sets motor vehicle emission standards.

“Today’s cars are 95 percent cleaner than they were 20 years ago,” Martin said. “And that trend will continue. Air pollution levels in Sacramento County have stayed somewhat even, due to the fact that there are more cars on the road. But they are cleaner cars.”

El Dorado County is often the recipient of Sacramento’s smoggy air, which tends to blow toward El Dorado Hills and Placerville before getting trapped against the mountains.

“It’s like all this pollution is trapped in a bowl,” said SACOG Chairman Tom Stallard. “And when you have hot weather, it can really get bad. It’s the same thing you have in Tahoe, where the pollution sits in the basin until it’s blown out.

“Everyone wants clean air,” he said. “But road improvements are important also.”

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