Groups appeal federal ruling in favor of travel corridor

RIVERSIDE – Environmental groups fighting a 16-mile travel corridor intended to link San Jacinto and Perris filed an appeal last week with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking reconsideration of their lawsuit challenging the project based on air pollution, wildlife habitat and other concerns.

“This massive waste of taxpayer money won’t solve traffic problems, but it will break up neighborhoods and wildlife habitat,” Aruna Prabhala, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Rather than offer 21st century transit solutions, the Federal Highway Administration shrugged off environmental laws and pushed through this boondoggle, which will hurt imperiled animals and force hundreds of people from their homes.”

In May, U.S. District Judge George Wu in Los Angeles granted summary judgment in favor of the proposed Mid-County Parkway, rejecting arguments against it that were submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley, the San Bernardino Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

According to the plaintiffs, Wu’s ruling failed to account for “misleading and incomplete” details contained in a federal environmental review, raising the likelihood of National Environmental Policy Act violations. The opponents argue that sensitive habitats within the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and the Lake Perris State Recreation Area would be placed at risk if the project goes forward in its current form.

“The Mid-County Parkway would worsen our region’s struggling air quality and tear up neighborhoods with a permanent new source of diesel exhaust and soot,” George Hague of the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club said. “Instead of this wasteful new six-lane freeway, the county should be proposing cleaner and cheaper upgrades to the Ramona Expressway to improve traffic safety.”

According to the groups’ complaint, the parkway will “increase greenhouse gas emissions, destroy agricultural lands, increase noise, adversely affect public lands and worsen air quality, among other impacts.”

About 400 people will be displaced as a result of the land acquisitions necessary, under eminent domain, to construct the corridor, the plaintiffs said.

The Riverside County Transportation Commission and the Federal Highway Administration are jointly involved in the $1.7 billion project.

“We have been exceptionally diligent in complying with state and federal requirements and being responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” county Supervisor John Tavaglione said after the federal ruling in May. “We know how important Mid-County Parkway is for Riverside County’s future.”

The multi-phase project, intended to address the county’s growing traffic demands over the next two decades, remains in the design phase, but the Riverside County Transportation Commission has already initiated the process of identifying how to mitigate impacts connected with construction of an interchange at Placentia Avenue and Interstate 215 in Perris, which would serve as the western terminus, according to the agency. The eastern end of the project would be in the city of San Jacinto.

Procuring funding commitments will determine when the project goes into full swing. As of now, there’s no timetable for groundbreaking or future completion, officials said.

The same groups that sued the commission in federal court last year sued in state court based on alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. The next hearing in that case is set for September at the Riverside Historic Courthouse.

More information is available at www.midcountyparkway.org.

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