Two groups of residents who live near the planned freeway connectors from Interstate 5 to State Route 56 have filed lawsuits against Caltrans, the state transportation agency, alleging environmental studies for the project were flawed and should be redone.
Both groups believe the analysis of the project “doesn’t meet the requirements under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) to move forward,” said Brian Farmer, of Citizens for Sensible Traffic Planning, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit in early November.
Dennis Ridz, with the second group, Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision, said he believes it is likely the two legal actions will be combined into one as the case moves forward.
Among the concerns about the $294 million project - which, when completed, will connect southbound I-5 to eastbound 56, and westbound 56 to northbound I-5 - are noise, air pollution, traffic and the sheer size of the “flyovers,” the ramps that will connect the two freeways, as well as the proximity of the flyovers to homes and schools.
This summer, a final environmental impact report for the project, as well as Caltrans’ preferred configuration of the project, were released after some 15 years of study, including the release of a draft EIR (environmental impact report) in 2012, which was the subject of numerous public comments.
Although Caltrans has designated its preferred alternative, funding for design and construction of the freeway connectors isn’t available, and may not be until 2035, according to the agency.
But Farmer said he and other residents want the state to conduct a proper analysis of the potential impacts and mitigation measures, to come up with best decision possible on which option to select, whether Caltrans’ preferred alternative or another option.
“I think the first step is do the work,” Farmer said.
Although Caltrans won’t need to relocate anyone off its property to construct the connectors, according to the EIR, there will be 27 partial residential land acquisitions and 12 partial business acquisitions.
Ridz and Farmer are also concerned how close the connector ramps will be to homes and schools. Ridz said the connector will come within six feet of some homes.
“There are sections that are really close,” Ridz said, particularly Portofino Circle, which is north of Carmel Valley Road and west of I-5.
However, Arturo Jacobo, project manager for Caltrans’ I-5 North Coast Corridor projects, wrote in an email that the freeway connectors do not come within six feet of any homes.
The opponents are also concerned at what they say will be the 120-foot height of the flyover connecting I-5 south to 56 east.
“It’s just so big,” said Farmer. “The size makes it difficult to mitigate noise and pollution.”
While the project opponents are measuring the height of the flyovers above sea level, Caltrans measures the height from the existing I-5 freeway, and said at its highest point, the connector from I-5 south stands at 45 feet. A Caltrans chart shows the I-5 freeway is 63 to 72 feet above sea level.
In any event, opponents said more work must be done to identify and analyze the project’s environmental impacts.
“From my perspective, the EIR was clearly inadequate. There was a failure to evaluate noise pollution and greenhouse gases, requirements under CEQA that they simply didn’t do,” said Farmer.
In his email, Jacobo wrote, “Caltrans has complied with all requirements,” regarding environmental analysis. He also noted that during work on the project, state legislation put it under the purview of the California Coastal Act rather than CEQA. But he noted that since the environmental review began under CEQA, Caltrans decided to complete the EIR.
“We put the same level of effort, analysis and public disclosure into the decision-making process as we would for any major project,” Jacobo wrote.
For his part, Farmer said he is unsure of the value of the I-5 southbound connector, since it will bring traffic to eastbound 56, which is very congested during the afternoon rush hour.
“This 12-story thing is going to be a parking lot with cars having nowhere to go,” Farmer said. “It’s not clear what we gain by dumping traffic onto jam-packed freeways.”
The project will include additional traffic lanes on SR-56 between Carmel Country Road and El Camino Real, as well as replacement of the Del Mar Heights overcrossing at I-5, according to a project description at KeepSanDiegoMoving.com/NCC.
Jacobo wrote that among the key reasons for selecting the so-called Phased Connectors Alternative was “a superior traffic benefit, especially in the afternoon,” and it was the only alternative that allowed the off-ramp from eastbound 56 to Carmel Creek Road to remain open as requested by the public.