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Biden Administration Steps in on Caltrans’ Highway Expansion in Fresno

In America’s most polluted air basin, EPA set to take a fresh look at air quality impacts of warehouse-focused highway expansion.

3:23 PM PST on January 12, 2024

A juvenile detention facility is less than 100 yards away from Caltrans’ interchange expansion on American Ave., yet Caltrans says nobody lives close enough to suffer health impacts. Photo: Joey Hall

Note: This story was originally published by Fresnoland, a nonprofit news organization

What's at stake:
A Biden Administration decision to reopen the review process of a Highway 99 expansion throws the future of the projects into uncertainty.

The outcome of the EPA's review could have a major impact on whether the project proceeds.

A decision by the Biden administration casts new doubt on a planned expansion of Highway 99 in south central Fresno, raising concerns about the project's impact on air quality and prompting fresh scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Citing potential procedural mistakes by the Federal Highway Administration, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has ordered a reevaluation of the agency's decision to exempt two interchange expansions, on North and American Avenues, from a Clean Air Act analysis.

According to federal court filings from December 22, Buttigieg and FHWA chief Shailen Bhatt expressed concerns that the FHWA may have failed to follow proper protocol under the Clean Air Act when it exempted the Caltrans projects from the required analysis. The exemption came during the Trump era, but the Biden administration's reevaluation signals a potential shift in priorities.

"The air quality dimensions of the project didn't seem to get a lot of scrutiny the first go around," said Stephanie Safdi, a lecturer at Stanford Law School who is who is representing Friends of Calwa in a lawsuit against Caltrans and the FHWA. "A closer look is long overdue."

The FHWA's decision has reenergized the lawsuit filed by Fresno-based community groups, who argue that the project could exacerbate the city's already poor air quality. The agency's upcoming clean air review "will have a direct impact" on the case, Buttigieg and Bhatt acknowledged.

Notably, the agency secured a federal court nod to reevaluate the Highway 99 project in Fresno without scrapping its initial exemption.

Adding to the concerns, Safdi said the FHWA improperly delegated Clean Air Act responsibilities to Caltrans, further raising questions about the project's environmental review process.

“They’ve conceded this,” she said, referring to conversations with FHWA.

The FHWA's abrupt reevaluation fractures its long alliance with Caltrans, who is now facing increased scrutiny from environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has the authority to request a Clean Air Act analysis for the project, and an EPA spokesperson told Fresnoland that the agency is reviewing all available information.

EPA concerns about air quality violations have derailed major highway projects in the past. In 2022, the agency's request for a clean air analysis led Caltrans to abandon a similar $6 billion highway expansion project in Los Angeles.

Caltrans could not be reached for comment on this story. Caltrans officials have not responded to Fresnoland questions over the last year regarding the state agency’s decisions on the projects. Matthew Nies, a Justice Department spokesperson, confirming the federal court request came at the urging of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg and Infrastructure Czar Bhatt, offered no further comment.

The FHWA's decision to reopen the review process marks a significant development in the fight over the Highway 99 expansion. With environmental concerns taking center stage, the project's future remains uncertain, and the outcome of the lawsuit and the EPA's review could have a major impact on transportation planning, climate change goals, and warehouse development in Fresno and beyond.

Highway 99 project in Fresno meets clear EPA criteria, lawyers say

Caltrans’ exemption faces increasing skepticism, particularly in light of evidence suggesting the projects meet the Clean Air Act's criteria for mandatory analysis.

According to federal law, highway projects plagued by chronic gridlock, diesel fumes, or poised to choke already smog-ridden air basins are required to undergo rigorous environmental assessments before breaking ground.

For instance, Caltrans’ highway projects meet the EPA’s gridlock criteria. With or without the interchange improvements, the portion of Highway 99 between the interchanges will operate at an “F” level of congestion within twenty years, according to Caltrans’ environmental review.

The interchanges are “a type of project that ordinarily should be subjected to hot-spot analysis,” said Hannah Motley, a lawyer at Stanford University’s Mills environmental law clinic. “It's unclear from the environmental reports why Caltrans concluded that wasn't the case.”

‘Very good news,’ says juvenile detention center watchdog

The federal court filing comes as Caltrans finds itself embroiled in a legal quagmire over its allegedly flawed environmental review for a pair of major highway interchange projects in Fresno.

At the heart of the controversy lies a proposed 3,000-acre industrial park, a leviathan of warehouses poised to be serviced by the very interchange projects Caltrans greenlit. 

Despite internal alarms ringing inside the agency, with high-level Caltrans officials briefed on the mammoth development, Caltrans omitted the park from its environmental review – an omission that independent legal experts deem a flagrant violation of state environmental law.

This isn't just a bureaucratic bungle; scientists say it's a potential health and environmental hazard.

By omitting the industrial park's impact, Caltrans potentially underestimated its true contribution to traffic congestion, air pollution, and the negative health impacts on kids at a nearby juvenile detention facility. 

Fresno County’s proposed 3,000-acre industrial park, currently in the middle of almond and raisin orchards, would gain key highway access from Caltrans’ interchange projects. Gregory Weaver.

According to Caltrans’ environmental review, air pollution in the vicinity of the juvenile detention facility is estimated to skyrocket by a staggering 240 percent by 2046.

Yet this crucial information was absent from a key memo Caltrans sent to the EPA when requesting a Clean Air Act exemption. Even small increases in pollution exposure can increase children’s risk for self-harm by 42 percent later in life.

Marilyn Watts, chair of the oversight commission for the detention facility, said it was “very good news” that the Biden Administration was taking a closer look at the impacts of the project.

“There’s all kinds of things kids who live near freeways deal with,” she said. “It’s a huge concern.”

A whistleblower inside Caltrans said her concerns about the agency’s approach were ignored. And last May, CARB’s head of Environmental Justice said Caltrans should have analyzed the impacts of the proposed industrial park.

Community groups want Caltrans funds reallocated

Laura Moreno, a community organizer in Calwa who lives down the road from the interchange expansions, said the $140 million Caltrans projects will be detrimental to her community.

Citing high air pollution and the low-wage, high-turnover nature of warehouse work, Moreno said she wants to see the millions of dollars going to the projects reallocated to more “community-friendly” projects. 

She pointed to the canceled highway expansion in LA, where $750 million earmarked for the project was reallocated to build bike and pedestrian infrastructure in working-class LA communities.

“The roads we drive are horrible. Highway overpasses don’t have sidewalks,” Moreno said. “Kids walk to school on the side of roads. We have one bus route.”

“$140 million would drastically improve the neighborhood’s quality of life, if only we had a say at Caltrans on how the funds are spent.”

Fresno city councilmember Miguel Arias said Caltrans’ support for the projects shows a failure in its basic highway operation responsibilities.

“Caltrans has to go back to the drawing board. It makes no common sense, nor is it an appropriate use of public tax dollars, to spend $140 million – only to end up with the same level of congestion."

“It’s crazy,” he added.

In the wake of Buttigieg's order, community groups in Fresno are mobilizing. 

Federal and state agencies, as well as the public, will also be allowed to comment on whether an analysis is needed. An exact date hasn’t been set on when Caltrans’ air quality documents for the Highway 99 project in Fresno will be made available. 

After comments are submitted, FHWA will reassess whether a clean air analysis is needed for the highway expansion. 

In the meantime, Friends of Calwa, which Moreno leads, and Fresno Building Healthy Community and Leadership Counsel have filed a motion with FHWA to push back the formal window for when public comment starts, so that more community outreach can be done. 

In a letter to FHWA, the groups argue that an extended comment window would allow for deeper engagement and a more inclusive process, ultimately yielding a more informed and equitable project outcome.

Organizers with the groups said they plan on reaching out to residents across town, and potentially kids and leaders at the juvenile detention facility.

“We don’t need more warehouse jobs. We’re against any more industrial development,” said Moreno. “We’re hoping Caltrans stops the projects altogether.”

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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