Lane change ahead

Judge nixes Highway 50 expansion, for now

Adding more highway lanes in Sacramento is “like eating more when you are trying to lose weight,” says the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

This is why ECOS, along with several Sacramento neighborhood groups, went to court to stall a major highway-expansion project along Highway 50.

The state’s transportation agency, Caltrans, wants to add two 7-mile long carpool lanes between Sunrise Boulevard and Watt Avenue. The lanes would be dedicated to cars carrying two or more occupants during peak times.

The plan could help suburban commuters get to their downtown jobs, and back home, more easily. But the plan is unpopular in the city of Sacramento. Opponents argue that adding lanes won’t relieve congestion for long, and the added freeway lanes will quickly become filled up again. More capacity, they argue, will lead to even more cars, using more gasoline and spewing out even more air pollution.

A year ago, the Sacramento City Council voted 9-0 to approve a resolution opposing the project. They were following the lead of Sacramento neighborhood groups who came out strongly against it, because they believe it will cause a surge of new traffic on downtown and Midtown streets.

“It’s another transportation project that benefits suburban commuters at the expense of people who live close to the core,” said Eric Davis, president of ECOS. “They’re saying they can make it easier for people from El Dorado to come into downtown, and they’re not going to have any environmental impacts.”

The groups sued Caltrans in June of 2007. And earlier this month, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley agreed with them, ruling that Caltrans must conduct another environmental review of the project to determine how the project will affect the overall “vehicle miles traveled” in the region and the associated impacts on air quality.

Environmental lawsuits aren’t unusual for these sorts of highway projects. But this case is significant because the judge has ordered the state to consider how the project will affect greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming.

Caltrans had argued that the agency didn’t have sufficient methods for measuring the climate-change impact of the project. But Judge Frawley ordered the agency to give it a try anyway.

Davis acknowledged that it’s tough to figure out the global-warming impacts of a local project. “How do you define what’s significant when the problem is defined globally? That’s a good question,” said Davis. “But you have to give us a number to start with. Don’t just try to sweep the problem under the rug,” he added.

The judge also said the agency had not sufficiently considered alternatives to the freeway expansion, including options that focused on mass transit.

One alternative, Davis suggested, would be for the agency to consider helping RT increase light-rail service along the corridor.

“We think there needs to be a massive shift in investment. You’ve got to choose: Are you going to continue to develop the automobile network, or are you going to get serious about transit?”