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  • Writer's pictureZack Deutsch-Gross

Fresno Freeway Expansion Shows Urgent Need for Caltrans Reform

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

A recent investigation by Fresnoland, based on the news site’s review of records produced by Caltrans in response to a public records request, shows that the state agency in charge of road maintenance routinely violated state and federal environmental regulations and hid information from the public. In its environmental review for a project to construct two new freeway interchanges on Highway 99 in Fresno, Caltrans concluded there would be no increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) even though the interchanges would connect Highway 99 to a new industrial park expected to add 4 million to 17 million truck trips annually to South Central Fresno.

The freeway interchange project in Fresno has been in the works since 2016 and is projected to be completed in 2028. In March of this year, local residents sued because Caltrans failed to disclose or mitigate the significant increase in pollution due to the increased truck traffic. Fresnoland’s investigation shows the agency knew about the industrial park and failed to include it in the environmental evaluation. Despite meeting with local officials and being briefed about the proposed 3,000-acre industrial park, in September 2021, Caltrans circulated its environmental review the next month without mentioning the planned development.

Here’s a breakdown of Caltrans' malfeasance and the case for reform.

Caltrans’ failures

The 3,000-acre industrial park wouldn’t be possible without the Highway 99 interchange expansion because the current interchanges can’t accommodate truck traffic. This is a textbook example of induced demand: when you expand car and truck infrastructure, you increase VMT.

Rather than revising its environmental documents to account for the additional traffic and pollution from the industrial park directly linked to this Caltrans project, the agency ignored the new information and proceeded with business as usual. Jeanie Ward-Waller, former deputy director for planning and modal programs at Caltrans, raised concerns within the agency about this omission but was ignored. Earlier this year, Caltrans demoted Ward-Waller as she was about to blow the whistle on a freeway widening project on Highway 80 between Davis and Sacramento.

According to the Fresnoland article, in the Highway 99 interchange, Caltrans:

  • Failed to turn over emails about the meeting with local officials about the industrial park in the discovery phase of the residents’ lawsuit

  • Stated that there are no residents in the project area because no one lives within the freeway right of way, ignoring the basic physics of air pollution and the fact that people live nearby, including a large number of youth in a juvenile detention facility

  • Failed to inform the EPA when it learned of new circumstances that could affect the clean air analysis.

In the article, Ward-Waller attributed the problem to a lack of oversight at Caltrans. The agency manages hundreds of projects through 12 district offices. Projects often take many years from funding to completion, so it’s challenging to follow what the agency does on individual projects. Caltrans takes advantage of that to flout initiatives meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, such as California’s Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI).

The only solution is major reform at a state agency whose work often increases climate change-causing emissions at a time when we urgently need to reduce them.

What Caltrans reform looks like

TransForm and our allies are mapping a vision for change at Caltrans. While there are existing mechanisms for aligning transportation spending with state climate goals—such as CAPTI, the Caltrans System Investment Strategy, and a new law requiring greater transparency at the agency, SB 695—they fail to tie investments to outcomes, have a limited scope, or are vulnerable to loopholes and exploitation.

The first step in Caltrans reform is to require public transparency and accountability from the state’s transportation agencies. In order to hold state agencies accountable and tie their spending to clear, measurable climate outcomes, we need straightforward, comprehensive, publicly accessible data on how existing and future projects are advancing—or failing to advance—safety, equity, and climate goals.

It won’t be easy to change an entrenched agency culture that has formed over decades, just like it won’t be easy to change our car-dependent culture and make public transit, biking, and walking easy transportation options. But both are vital and pressing as our window to address the worst effects of climate change rapidly shrinks. And TransForm is committed to working toward that change.


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