Guest Commentary: Buyer Beware – EIR on I-80 Contains Unreviewed Forecast on Benefits / Impact of I-80 Widening

image courtesy of CalTrans

By Alan Hirsch, YoloTD

As you read this, the lengthy draft Environment Impact Report (EIR) for the widening of I-80 has been released for public review as you read this. It was first promised in early 2021.

Readers should be warned not to take its results as truth, but rather as a forecast that has not been peer reviewed. The goal of public review of an EIR is to correct the deficiencies before the final document is completed and a decision to approve the project is made. If done accurately, the conclusions should inform government decision makers if the $330 million project‘s benefits outweigh the impacts.

These background facts and past Davis Enterprise reporting might be useful as you read the draft EIR:

– The draft EIR is a product of a powerful local Caltrans office not Caltrans HQ. That office (District 3) is accused of misappropriation of funds to begin the project ahead of the EIR by a high-level whistleblower, as discussed in Politico, LA Times and Vanguard.  The head of that local district office has announced his retirement.

– UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies published a peer-reviewed study 2 years ago documenting that Caltrans district office’s traffic models overstate the ability of widening to reduce traffic congestion (the induced demand effect). This has been reported on by Monica Stark in the Enterprise page 1 June 2, 2023

– Caltrans HQ has acknowledged the accuracy of this UCD study.

– Caltrans HQ accepts a UC Davis traffic forecasting model which forecasts that I-80 Yolo widening is likely to add an additional 12,000 cars to the freeway within 10 years.

– Caltrans HQ policy guidance to local districts provides that adding a new toll lane will not fix this congestion either; i.e. it will just allow the richest 25% to buy their way out of congestion instead of providing a transit system we all can use.

– California Air Resources Board (CARB) wrote a draft EIR Comment letter in July 2023 stating a Caltrans District office in Southern California continues to not update its traffic forecast modeling based on UC Davis research: CARB says Caltrans local office understated the induced traffic increase by 94% for a section of I-5, therefore grossly overstating congestion relief.

– Caltrans released a study to the public in May 2023 showing improving the Capitol Corridor rail service to 100 mph to the Bay Area would be 15 times more cost effective than the I-80 Yolo widening.  This alternative to widening was not considered in the draft EIR. See Davis Vanguard Oct 12,2023

– Professor Susan Handy, head of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, wrote a letter to YoloTD on I-80 widening stating the widening for a toll lane won’t fix congestion, but it will increase GHG. Only better transit improvements provide a sustainable fix.

– Yolo TD Director of Planning Brian Abbanat has stated publicly he believes, regardless of the environmental impacts found by the EIR, the local Caltrans District office will approve the widening via finding “overriding” benefits based on alleged congestion relief of adding a lane.

– The California Climate Action Plan, and all 4 Yolo County city climate plans state explicitly that if we are serious about reducing driving, we must shift some car trips to transit to address climate change.

– A high Level Caltrans whistleblower claims that our local Caltrans District office has illegally appropriated funds to begin the widening as part of the pavement rehab project now happening. See Enterprise page 1 Oct 15, 2023.

Readers of the draft EIR should also be aware that the adequacy of fixes to the draft EIR (based on comment letters) will be decided by Caltrans alone. Caltrans already has plans to begin construction on the widening by Sept 30, 2024.

However, as part of a Memorandum of Understanding with Caltrans, the five members of the YoloTD board, including Davis’s Josh Chapman and Supervisor Lucas Frerichs, do retain a final power of veto.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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