Environmental Lawsuits Fuel Roadbuilding In California
"Desperate to raise cash to make room for more cars on the freeways, California's main road-building agency is wielding an unexpected weapon: the state's environmental laws.
Using a law that says developers must mitigate the impact of their projects on highways, the agency is suing cities and builders for money to fund freeway expansion and other improvements that relieve congestion."
"Developers say the suits are extortion: Pay the state's ransom or see projects bogged down in litigation indefinitely. Local governments complain that the state is trying to grab funds that should be going to their streets and to enviro-friendly transportation projects."
"It is very apparent that these lawsuits have become nothing more than a fundraising source for Caltrans," said Rex Hime, executive director of the California Business Properties Assn.
"Caltrans is recognizing we need to be more strategic and smarter" about raising funds for freeways, said Gregg Albright, a planning official at the agency. "There just isn't enough of a revenue stream otherwise. The consequences of not doing this are significant."
"Albright said Caltrans has had the authority to force developers to pay impact fees for decades but has opted not to use a heavy hand. The agency slowly began to change its policy a few years ago and in recent months has become considerably more aggressive."
"The agency's push has drawn a backlash from building and taxpayer groups, who are lobbying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop the lawsuits. They call the impact fees illegal taxes."
Ironically, the sites in contention include infill brownfields that may rely also on public transportation.
"Urban planners are reluctant to take sides.
"This is one of those troubling issues where both sides are right," said Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Infrastructure at USC."