Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, March 6 @ 4:39 p.m. / Environment, Infrastructure, Roads, Traffic
Federal Judge Lifts Nearly Decade-Old Injunction That Halted STAA 197/199 Project
A federal judge in San Francisco on Friday lifted an injunction that has stalled construction on a Caltrans project to bring highways 199 and 197 up to federal trucking standards for nearly a decade.
But the agency doesn’t yet have a timeline for when the STAA 197/199 Safe STAA Access project can continue, spokesman Manny Machado told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Monday.
“We are monitoring the situation and will take next steps to advance this critical project with our local partners at the appropriate time,” Machado said via email.
On Friday, the U.S. District Court for Northern California stated that revised environmental assessments Caltrans and the National Marine Fisheries Service conducted were “reasonable and supported by evidence” and neither agency acted arbitrarily or capriciously.
As a result, the judge on granted summary judgment in favor of Caltrans and NMFS and “against the plaintiffs” — Friends of Del Norte, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The plaintiffs have until Thursday to advise the court if there are more concerns they want to address in litigation, according to court’s Friday order.
“I’m not sure where we’re headed yet,” Friends of Del Norte representative Don Gillespie told the Outpost on Monday. “We’re very disappointed and we still feel the STAA trucks are going to be a huge safety concern on our little highway.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who began advocating for the project when he was president of the Crescent City-Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce in 2006, said the judge’s decision to lift the injunction is a “good step in the right direction.”
However, the California Transportation Commission may have to reallocate the $34 million in state and federal dollars that have funded the project since 2008, Howard said. He said he’s also certain that costs have increased since the court issued a preliminary injunction halting the project in 2014.
“If there’s no legitimate appeal recognized by the judge by the 9th, we’re going to have to go back before the commission and request funding with a new price tag,” Howard said. “I’m just grateful the judge ruled the way he ruled given the information that was before him.”
Spearheaded by Caltrans, and funded since 2008, the $34 million STAA 197/199 project aims to provide safer passage for trucks meeting the 1982 federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) standard.
The project includes widening three curves on U.S. 199 and replacing a bridge that was built in 1924. It also consists of widening two curves near Ruby Van Deventer on State Route 197, known to Del Norters as North Bank Road.
Friends of Del Norte, EPIC and the Center for Biological Diversity has challenged the project in court, winning a preliminary injunction halting the project in 2014. The organizations believe the STAA 197/199 project will increase the number of larger trucks in the corridor, which winds its way alongside the Smith River, the source of Crescent City's drinking water.
On Monday, Gillespie continued to argue that the STAA 197/199 project would be a boondoggle if it were to move forward. He pointed out that there will be a “good section” of U.S. 199 through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park south of the Hiouchi Bridge that will be off limits to those trucks.
“That’s going to be a cluster because truckers that want to head south are not going to be happy about driving northwest,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen (in) the park. It’s going to be complicated and it’s not going to be pleasant with those big trucks.”
In their 2014 lawsuit, the conservation organizations questioned the adequacy of the environmental review process conducted by both Caltrans in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, stating there were contradictions and “critical gaps in reasoning.”
After the court issued its in junction in May 2014, Caltrans and NMFS conducted another review of the project’s environmental impacts.
In 2017, three years after the court issued its preliminary injunction, Caltrans and the NMFS released a new biological assessment that put more emphasis on locations in Oregon. The assessment defined the project’s “action area” to include all of North Bank Road as well as the entire U.S. 199 corridor from its junction with State Route 197 to its terminus at Interstate 5 in Grants Pass.
As a result, NMFS and Caltrans’ new biological assessment considered potential impacts to both the Smith River and Rogue River basins, according to the court’s Friday ruling.
The court also addressed the plaintiffs’ traffic safety concerns. Friends of Del Norte and EPIC argued that Caltrans inadequately analyzed the risk that the project would “lead to more accidents that would contaminate the Smith River and endanger nearby residents.”
However, the court ruling states, Caltrans’ environmental assessment discusses traffic safety extensively, “reasonably concluding” that traffic wouldn’t materially increase as a result.
According to Howard, Caltrans has contracted with a third party agency to conduct a safety audit of U.S. 199 between its junction with U.S. 101 and the California-Oregon border. That audit includes data from 2012-2022 at two locations the STAA 197/199 project seeks to improve — Washington Curve and Middle Fork Bridge, both on U.S. 199.
Twenty-five people died at those two locations during that 10-year time period, said Howard, citing the safety audit. He noted, however, that Caltrans has just begun conducting its safety audit.
“All we received was a number on a piece of paper for each of those points on the state highway system, and trust me when I say those weren’t the only points,” he said. “But those were the two most glaring and I point them out because these are areas we had contracted to be fixed and (had) the dollars awarded to do so.”
How the STAA 197/199 project moves forward now is up to Caltrans District 1 Director Matt Brady, Howard said. He said he will be meeting with Brady on Tuesday to determine what the next steps in the process are.
On Monday, Gillespie was still making his way through the judge’s 20-page ruling and hadn’t had a chance to consult with Friends of Del Norte’s lawyer yet. He said he also wanted to give the organization’s Board of Directors a chance to look at the summary judgment.
“I’m not a legal expert, so the summary judgment may be the last move here,” he said. “But if we can pursue another avenue we will.”