Below is my position paper on Niles Canyon from my 2012 campaign.
Niles Canyon Roadway Widening
The Niles Canyon area is one of Fremont’s beautiful gems. We should work to keep it that way and oppose Caltrans’ efforts to widen the roadway.
Caltrans proposed a three phase project which would widen all of Route 84 between Sunol and the Mission / Niles intersection, essentially all of the roadway within Niles Canyon. Their Environmental Impact Review (EIR) process was done in a way which kept it as below the radar as possible. Even the City of Fremont was not notified in time to prepare comments. (Most of the roadway is within the City of Fremont.)
Once news of the project gained more attention in late 2010, the residents of Niles teamed up with environmental groups such as the Alameda Creek Alliance (ACA) and organized to challenge the project. Caltrans’ attitude was they had complied with the EIR process and there was no reason the project should be stopped. They continued cutting trees in the canyon despite the public pressure to stop it.
I participated in some of the meetings with Caltrans as a representative of the Sierra Club. As someone with a formal background in traffic engineering, I was able to rebut Caltran’s argument that the project was needed to make the roadway safer. Unfortunately, the result of these meetings was that Caltrans did not offer to slow the project.
The cost of the project is about eighty million dollars. At the meetings that I attended there were numerous residents opposed to the project but very few (if any) in favor of it. Why Caltrans is intent on doing a project that the local residents and the City of Fremont don’t want is a mystery to me. In this case, the residents are asking the government to NOT spend money but their request is falling on deaf ears.
Lawsuit Filed by the Alameda Creek Alliance
A lawsuit filed by ACA claimed that Caltrans did not comply with the standard environmental review process. As a part of this lawsuit, I filed a statement as a trained transportation engineer stating that the safety data provided by Caltrans does not warrant the improvements they had proposed. I also argued that there are many cheaper, less destructive safety improvements that could be made that weren’t being considered.
The judge ruled in favor of the ACA that Caltrans had indeed not completed a valid environmental review process. Caltrans was ordered to halt the project immediately. This was a huge victory for the residents of Niles and others that opposed the project.
I would like the City to pursue the idea of Caltrans decertifying the roadway to the City of Fremont where it lies within our jurisdiction. Decertification (also known as relinquishment) has happened to a number of roadway segments where the local city wants to control the roadway as opposed to having it remain under Caltrans’ jurisdiction. The most common examples of this are were historic main thoroughfares have become downtown areas. As the roadway moves from major thoroughfare to a pleasant downtown area, the city is the more appropriate controlling entity.
The advantages of decertification are that the City of Fremont would be responsible for the roadway. This could stop Caltrans’ widening project immediately where it is within the City’s boundaries. The City simply has to say it’s no longer interested in pursuing the widening. The City of Fremont has also been pursuing a truck ban on the roadway. If this is in our jurisdiction, it would be very easy for the City to institute such a ban.
Another advantage would be that the City could work on some other initiatives to make the canyon an overall more pleasant experience. For example, there is the Niles Canyon Railway that attracts many visitors to the area. It’s also possible that we could restore some recreational activities to the areas next to Alameda Creek.
There would be costs associated with this as the City would take over maintenance of the roadway. In other instances of relinquishment that I’ve reviewed, Caltrans is required to turn over the roadway in a “state of good repair” or provide funding to bring it up to that state. If the City did institute a truck ban, that would greatly reduce the cost of maintaining the roadway.
It’s quite possible there are issues with decertification that haven’t been considered here. In any event, it at least seems worthwhile for the City staff to investigate this possibility.
What You Can Do to Help Keep the Canyon Preserved as it is
Caltrans has said they are going to try and continue the project by restarting the environmental review process. The Alameda Creek Alliance, the Save Niles Canyon group and others will continue to oppose this project. Hopefully, Caltrans will at some point realize that they work for the public and should not pursue a project that is so heavily opposed by that same public.