Lost opportunities

Jim Brobeck is the Chair of the Sacramento Valley Environmental Watershed Caucus

In the world of planning and conservation, it is easier to blame environmental advocates for infrastructure failures than it is to hold policy makers accountable for self-induced disasters.

Butte Environmental Council, a leader in preserving vernal wetlands, is skeptical about the justification Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG) is giving for converting Highway 149 into an expressway: safety. Highway 149’s intersections with highways 99 and 70 south of Chico are dangerous. The Chico press has reported on fatal collisions there for over a decade, but CalTrans and BCAG have ignored suggestions to install life-saving traffic signals and longer turn-lanes. Clearly, safety is not the only priority.

As stated in the 2002 Draft Environmental Impact Report/Statement, “The 1990 Corridor Study identified SR 70 as the preferred route for upgrades to complete an inter-regional transportation facility from Sacramento to Chico. A gap-closure project along SR 149 is an integral part of this freeway/ expressway system.”

This freeway could facilitate leapfrog suburban development through Yuba, Sutter, and Butte counties, yet Butte County has an outdated General Plan and so has not adequately prepared for or analyzed what such upgrades may do to agriculture, air quality, or even transportation throughout the entire county.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognized that the project presents threats to Butte County’s remnant vernal pool habitat. The permits to build the expressway (authorized in 2002) required the creation of a legal Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The USFWS informed CalTrans and the Federal Highway Administration in May of 2005 that they were out of compliance with the requirement to create an HCP (the draft was due May 2004). If completed, this HCP would have been Butte County’s first tool for identifying the cumulative impacts associated with the expressway. Butte County and CalTrans plan to begin construction this month.

This is part of a pattern that neglects common-sense planning while erecting infrastructure that will promote urban expansion from Sacramento to Chico.

Many alternatives obviously exist to handle the commuter traffic on the 20-mile stretch between Oroville and Chico. Butte County and CalTrans should have implemented safety measures years ago:

• Installed signals at both intersections for approximately $250,000 each. The expressway project could cost $130 million.

• Cut speed near intersections to 55 miles per hour.

• Lengthened left turn lanes on highways 99 and 70.

• Advocated funding for more California Highway Patrol personnel in the area.

• Increased Chico-Oroville bus service during peak commute hours.