A Federal court has halted a controversial Caltrans project to widen highways 197 and 199 along the Smith River Canyon:
The judge ruled that there is a risk of irreparable harm to the Smith River if the project were to proceed before the case is heard on its merits; he also ruled that a valid argument has been raised by plaintiffs that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to properly analyze whether the project will jeopardize protected coho salmon or their critical habitat. The court characterized both agencies’ biological assessment documents for the project as “contradictory and unclear,” citing “serious questions about the adequacy of the ESA review and consultation process” raised by the plaintiffs. The court noted that it “cannot rubber-stamp a haphazard consultation process.”
Caltrans tried to downplay the threat project construction poses to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River and failed to look at safety hazards from increased truck traffic. The agency has thus far refused to consider alternatives besides widening the highway and ignored the cumulative impacts of numerous other associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. Despite the Fisheries Service’s own data on the imperiled status of coho salmon in the Smith River, the agency rubber-stamped the project without sufficient review.
Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area and provides access to Redwood National and State Parks. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”
Meanwhile, Caltrans is sticking with Alternattive “B” alignment for the Centennial Corridor, a controversial freewway project in Bakersfield that would bisect the Westpark neighborhood:
Alternative B through the Westpark neighborhood remains Caltrans’ preferred and least expensive route for Centennial Corridor, the controversial freeway link between Highway 58 and the Westside Parkway — but would require the demolition of far more homes and businesses than previously thought.
With its release Friday of the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report, the state transportation agency found Alternative B would improve traffic throughout metropolitan Bakersfield — but as currently planned would require the demolition of 200 single-family homes, 110 multiple-family structures and 121 commercial buildings.
Previously, the freeway alternative through southwest Bakersfield was thought to require the demolition of more than 199 single-family homes, 16 multiple-family structures and 36 businesses. Currently, Caltrans also estimates Alternative B would require 293 full parcel acquisitions, 129 partial parcel acquisitions — and could displace an estimated 961 people.