Hatton Canyon Freeway opponents keep the faith.
Thursday, December 3, 1998
"If and when Father Serra is canonized, the Carmel Mission will become a shrine and upwards of 10,000 pilgrims a week will travel to it. They can get there through Hatton Canyon."
--Former Carmel Mayor Horace Lyon.
There was a sense of urgency to Carmel Mayor Horace Lyon''s plea to the California Division of Highways (CDH) back in the mid-1950s to proceed with construction of the Hatton Canyon Freeway.
As far as the mayor and most Carmel city officials were concerned, the Hatton Canyon Freeway was the best solution to the growing traffic congestion along Highway 1 in Carmel; and a preferable alternative to the CDH''s proposal to upgrade Highway 1 to a four-lane freeway.
Today, more than 40 years later, Father Junipero Serra remains one miracle away from sainthood. And, as far as area residents are concerned, it will take some kind of miracle to resolve the seemingly endless stalemate over whether the Hatton Canyon Freeway should be built. It''s enough, everyone agrees, to try the patience of a saint.
"These are powerful forces in both directions," says 27th District Assemblymember Fred Keeley, an opponent of the freeway. "Caltrans and its allies are very powerful, but the people who are opposing Caltrans have significant power they haven''t had before. Caltrans is closer than it''s ever been, but still doesn''t have all the green lights."
Just how close is Caltrans to beginning work on the freeway?
Despite the insistence of Caltrans officials that they expect to begin construction of the freeway next summer, opponents suggest that Caltrans may be no closer to the start of construction than it was more than 40 years ago, or even as recently as 1996, when a federal court of appeals judge ruled that the Hatton Canyon Freeway Environmental Impact Report (EIR) completed in 1991 failed to adequately address the project''s cumulative environmental impacts, and was therefore legally inadequate.
In order for Caltrans to start construction of the freeway, it needs to accomplish four major objectives: 1) Obtain certification for its supplemental EIR from both the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans itself, which is functioning as the lead agency in preparation of the environmental documents; 2) Obtain a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for the destruction of five acres of wetlands that would result from the project; 3) Obtain approximately five acres of land from a 34-acre parcel recently purchased by the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District (MPRPD) in order to meet federal highway guidelines regarding freeway slope and grading; 4) Win approval from the County Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors, and California Coastal Commission to amend the local coastal plan to accommodate the freeway.
According to Gary Ruggerone, Caltrans'' lead environmental planner for the freeway, Caltrans remains on target to begin work this summer, but admits the project''s tortured history of legal challenges will likely continue.
"We''re before the Army Corps. of Engineers right now for the 404 permit," says Ruggerone. "The Corps. looked at the requirements for the supplemental EIR, and although they wouldn''t issue a permit until the final document comes out, the Corps. didn''t feel there was anything there to hold off.
"Caltrans'' goal is still to begin work by summer," adds Ruggerone, "but I would assume based on past history there would be another lawsuit."
Given the strong opposition to the freeway, as well as the complex and drawn-out procedural and legal requirements of the freeway project, future lawsuits, on the part of both Caltrans and project opponents, are in fact a foregone conclusion.
Among the likely lawsuits over the freeway are further legal challenges to the project''s supplemental environmental report, a potential lawsuit by the owners of the Crossroads Shopping Center over loss of public access if the freeway is constructed, and a lawsuit by Caltrans against the MPRPD to acquire the five acres of land necessary to meet federal highway construction standards.
Based upon a preliminary review of Caltrans'' supplemental environmental study, San Francisco-based attorney Rachel Hooper--who served as lead attorney in the successful lawsuit brought against Caltrans'' initial environmental report by a consortium composed of the City of Carmel, the MPRPD, the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Hatton Canyon Coalition--says Caltrans has yet to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of, or sufficient mitigation plan for, the cumulative impacts of the freeway.
"Way back in the earliest point of this process, the consortium criticized the environmental documents for failing to adequately analyze the [project''s] cumulative impacts under the [California Environmental Quality Act] as well as NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act," explains Hooper, who adds that Caltrans has also failed to look at a broad range of feasible alternatives to the freeway.
"Cumulative impacts are one of the core analyses required by both statutes," adds Hooper.
"We think this [supplemental] document has improperly downplayed the severity of the cumulative impacts."
Hooper adds that any environmental document, such as the one produced by Caltrans, remains suspect when the agency in charge of approving the document is the same agency promoting the project itself.
"Our hope is Caltrans will take our comments seriously and revise the draft to correct its deficiencies," adds Hooper. "We will oppose lifting of the injunction [against the project] until Caltrans complies with CEQA and NEPA. At this point the draft does not demonstrate compliance."
Controversy at the Crossroads
The owners of the Crossroads Shopping Center have indicated they, too, may sue Caltrans over whether the freeway will unduly restrict public access to the Crossroads. Caltrans officials have indicated they may be able to resolve that concern, although no formal discussions or proposals with the Crossroads have taken place.
Caltrans itself will also have to initiate condemnation proceedings against the MPRPD to acquire five acres of land necessary for construction of the project.
It was earlier this month that the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District finalized an agreement with the High Meadow Property Owners Association to purchase 34 acres of land for an envisioned "Hatton Canyon Wetlands Regional Park." The acquisition of that land represents a preemptive strike on the part of the MPRPD against Caltrans'' efforts to build the freeway. Nevertheless, Caltrans project manager Jose Ponc says, "It doesn''t matter who owns the property, we will go through the California Transportation Commission for condemnation proceedings."
"I don''t know if our purchase will block the project, but we hope to acquire the entire canyon," responds Zad Leavy, a member of the park district board, who indicated the park district paid $66,000 for the 34-acre parcel.
According to Leavy, Caltrans actually started condemnation proceedings on those five acres within the past year, but dismissed further action because of the federal court ruling going against their EIR.
"I anticipate Caltrans will reactivate the condemnation proceedings when the EIR is completed and certified," says Leavy, "but we hope in due time, Caltrans will build a viable alternative on Highway 1."
End of the Stalemate?
Despite the virtual political and legal stalemate that has tied up the Hatton Canyon Freeway for the past 40-plus years, opponents contend that the results of the recent elections at both the state and local level have shifted the political momentum away from construction of the project in favor of some alternative to the existing Highway 1 corridor.
"I don''t think Caltrans'' job got easier on [election day]," contends Keeley, whose re-election to the state assembly gives freeway opponents a more powerful ally in Sacramento. "Their job got harder, and I intend to urge Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission, and the Coastal Commission to oppose construction of the freeway. I will use my office to try to do that."
Among the election results that could significantly impact the fate of the Hatton Canyon Freeway are the election of Democrat Gray Davis replacing Republican Pete Wilson as governor, the defeat of Measure N, the ballot measure that would have raised the sales tax to help fund the Prunedale Bypass, and the election of Lou Calcagno in place of Tom Perkins as Monterey County''s District 3 Supervisor.
Freeway opponents anticipate that when it comes time to select replacements for the four open seats on the Coastal Commission, Davis will use the power of his office to appoint new members, most likely Democrats, who favor tighter restrictions on development within the coastal zone. Such a re-configured membership on the commission could make it harder for Caltrans to win necessary approval from the commission for the freeway.
"I think Caltrans at bare minimum will have 12 individuals to get by at the state level," says District 5 Supervisor, Coastal Commission member, and freeway opponent Dave Potter in reference to the necessary Coastal Commission approval.
"The commission has done its homework well on projects of greater magnitude and said no to Caltrans in the past," adds Potter. "I suspect the commission will give this project the same level of scrutiny, and I would say that even with the commission''s current configuration there would be concerns [over the freeway]."
Another outcome of the November election that could shift support away from the Hatton Canyon Freeway is the defeat of Measure N. With no apparent resources to help fund the county''s share of construction of the Prunedale Bypass, there will be increasing pressure on the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) to reevaluate its longstanding support for the Hatton Canyon Freeway as the county''s number-one funded project, and to consider reallocating some of the funds for the freeway to the county''s share of the Prunedale Bypass.
With figures from the California Highway Patrol showing no fatal accidents on the Carmel section of Highway 1 between 1982-1996, TAMC and other freeway supporters will have a much harder time defending their support for the freeway as traffic accidents and fatalities continue to mount along Highway 101 in Prunedale.
Ironically, Caltrans officials are on record stating that the freeway is being built solely at the behest of TAMC, and that they are not "imposing" the project on Peninsula residents.
If that is indeed the case, ongoing efforts by both Keeley and Potter to transfer funding set aside for the Hatton Canyon Freeway to the Prunedale Bypass could receive an added boost.
Keeley and Potter have already confirmed with the California Transportation Commission that funding for the Hatton Canyon Freeway can in fact be allocated to other projects. In the past, TAMC has been reluctant to pursue such a course, but with the replacement of outgoing District 3 Supervisor Tom Perkins, a former TAMC member and staunch advocate of the freeway, by Lou Calcagno, whose support of the freeway can be described as lukewarm at best, Keeley and Potter believe TAMC advocacy for the Hatton Canyon Freeway may shift over to the Prunedale Bypass.
"TAMC was written off with the new election," insists Leavy. "With a new supervisor (Lou Calcagno), TAMC might be in a position to reconsider its support for [the freeway], support that was tentative at best."
"I interpret Lou Calcagno as not considering the freeway as the highest priority," says Keeley, "a significant departure from the position of Tom Perkins."
Who Wants It Anyway?
Throughout the years of debate over the Hatton Canyon Freeway, little discussion has focused on just how much popular support there is for the project, or how effective the $50 million freeway would be in relieving traffic congestion.
When the state first agreed to adopt the city of Carmel''s recommendation to build a bypass instead of four-laning Highway 1 back in 1955, it cited safety as its rationale and noted, with some alarm, that traffic between Monterey and Carmel was averaging 4,500 cars a day.
More than 40 years later, Caltrans says that Highway 1 in Carmel has one of the worst Levels of Service (LOS) in the state, reaching a Caltrans "Level F" rating during peak hours and some extended hours in the morning and afternoon. Based on 1997 figures, Caltrans has recorded the average daily traffic at 52,000 vehicles.
What Caltrans'' figures don''t clearly show, however, is a breakdown of the percentages of local and visitor traffic using Highway 1, or what percentage would use the freeway to bypass the Peninsula to travel directly south on Highway 1, or to access Carmel Valley Road heading east.
According to Caltrans'' Jose Ponc, the department''s most recent studies indicate that two-thirds of traffic would use the freeway and one-third the existing highway.
Figures compiled by opponents'' attorneys, however, indicate that only 37 percent of drivers would use Hatton Canyon and 42 percent the existing Highway 1 corridor. When the state first agreed to build the freeway back in 1955, state highway engineers indicated that the freeway would not solve congestion since some 70 percent of southbound traffic would leave the freeway on or before Carpenter Street rather than drive the long way around south to enter Carmel.
Caltrans is also on record as saying the freeway is not being built for locals, but to better accommodate visitor traffic.
While no one denies that some kind of traffic solution is required, it is not clear whether the freeway is the best and most effective solution, or whether operational improvements along the existing corridor can solve the problem.
As far as Carmel''s current Mayor Ken White is concerned, the Hatton Canyon Freeway, and Caltrans'' continued intransigence to working more closely with the local community, spells disaster for Carmel.
"The freeway doesn''t help Carmel, and one of the major issues is Caltrans backing off from the commitment it made to operational improvements," says White, commenting on Caltrans'' recent announcement it would not proceed with construction of 12 promised operational improvements to Highway 1.
"Caltrans is probably happy about that, but the City Council feels those improvements are very important," adds White. "We could have had traffic and congestion relief if they started those in 1997. Those people could have been a long way down the road to relief, but stalling has been part of the process. Caltrans has not been open-minded about making changes."
According to Fran Farina, who served as chair of the Carmel Valley Road Improvement Committee back in 1994, the operational improvements promised by Caltrans remain a critical component of traffic relief irrespective of whether the freeway itself is built.
"If the bypass is built, we''ll still need a climbing lane for us doing local travel," says Farina, who notes that if and when Caltrans builds the Hatton Canyon Freeway, it would fall to the county to finance any necessary improvements to Highway 1.
"My specific recollection is operational improvements were a requirement regardless of whether the freeway was constructed," adds Farina, "and if Caltrans thinks it can unilaterally walk away, [from making those improvements], they''ve walked into a hornets'' nest."
Caltrans'' recently announced decision not to proceed with road improvements to Highway 1 could become another factor that may ultimately undermine their efforts to proceed with the new freeway.
"There is a logic problem and legal problems in not doing the operational improvements," says Keeley. "I''m challenging Caltrans'' decision not to go forward on the remaining operational improvements, and combining that with what I intend to achieve with my advocacy before the Coastal Commission and CTC [California Transportation Commission], I think we can move this thing in a reasonable direction.
"I understand that Caltrans has a state highway mission and task, but it has to be balanced against the self-determination of [residents] over freeways cutting a swath through their community," adds Keeley. "Caltrans has to re-evaluate the project and start working with the community looking at viable alternatives."
"Caltrans dragged its feet because it knew if the operational improvements gave traffic relief now, advocacy for the freeway would wane," adds Potter. "They''ve created a support group by creating a hostage situation and giving no alternative [to the freeway]."
And the Prognosis Is...
While no one has sufficient insight to predict the final fate of the Hatton Canyon Freeway, what remains clear is that both sides of the debate are so firmly entrenched in their positions that a final decision on the project will likely drag on well beyond Caltrans'' optimistic summer start date.
"Caltrans, in spite of all logic and fiscal responsibility, is trying to bulldog this unacceptable project through, but we have no intention of giving up this fight until we are successful," says Joyce Stevens of the Hatton Canyon Coalition, a group of environmental activists opposing the freeway. "This canyon is far too valuable to let bureaucrats have it, far too valuable as open space, and as a recreation and wildlife corridor."
"I think [the freeway] is a highly inappropriate project, and that the traffic problem can be successfully dealt with without turning a pristine canyon into a concrete ditch," adds Neil Agron, who chairs the transportation committee of the Sierra Club''s Ventana Chapter.
"Caltrans'' efforts and philosophy that they can ''pave their way out of congestion'' has proven wanting." cw