Environmentalists Fight New Highway in SoCal


RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) - A $1.7 billion freeway project in California's Riverside County will exacerbate the already polluted air, threaten wildlife preserves and displace 171 workers and 396 residents, environmental groups claim in court.
     The Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and two local conservation groups sued the Federal Highway Administration on Friday in Federal Court, challenging the Mid County Parkway project, a $1.7 billion, six-lane, 16-mile freeway in western Riverside County.
     The highway will run from Interstate 215 in Perris east to State Route 79 in San Jacinto.
     With 2.3 million residents, Riverside County, just north of San Diego County, is the fourth most-populous county in California and the 11th most-populous county in the nation.
     Interstate 215, built east of I-15 in 1982 to try to relieve traffic congestion, has become its own parking lot during rush hours due to enormous population growth in what once was farmland.
     "This project will waste taxpayer dollars to destroy neighborhoods and wildlife areas with a polluting new freeway," Center for Biological Diversity legal director Jonathan Evans said. "There are smarter, safer and cheaper 21st century transit solutions to solve existing traffic problems. This will just drive future gridlock."
     The Federal Highway Administration, the Riverside County Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation overlooked a less expensive alternative to upgrade the Ramona Expressway, the groups say.
     Riverside County's own documentation states that the freeway will increase air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and affect the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, Lake Perris State Recreation Area, and other important conservation areas, the groups say.
     The 37-page lawsuit says the new highway will "only to encourage growth in a mainly rural area, leading to development far from transit, jobs and businesses, and social services." The project will do nothing to achieve officials' stated goal of reducing congestion, and traffic will be "the same or slightly worse," according to the complaint.
     Sierra Club member George Hague slammed the project, saying it will "tear up neighborhoods with a permanent new source of diesel exhaust and soot."
     "Instead of this wasteful new six-lane freeway, the county should be proposing cleaner and cheaper upgrades to the Ramona Expressway to improve traffic safety," Hague said.
     A plan to connect the Ramona Freeway to Interstate 15 collapsed after local opposition, according to the complaint.
     The Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley also are plaintiffs. They want the project enjoined for violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the Department of Transportation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
     The groups filed a similar lawsuit in state court last year, asking the judge to set aside government approvals for the project and enjoin it unless the defendants comply with NEPA and the APA.
     The Federal Highway Administration could not immediately be reached Monday for comment.
     Amanda Prasuhn with the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland filed the lawsuit on the groups' behalf.