Citizens vs. Caltrans Suit Wins Berkeley Road Improvements

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:43:00 PM

Caltrans will fund $2 million in improvements to Highway 13 in Berkeley as the result of negotiations with neighborhood activists who had filed suit challenging the state’s plans to drill a fourth bore for the Caldecott Tunnel. 

That sum doesn’t include $750,000 Caltrans had already committed to the city street improvements. 

The agreement, signed by Caltrans Jan. 23, is the second pact signed by the state transportation department to compensate for impacts of the tunnel project, said Ann Smulka, who was instrumental in negotiations as chair of the Fourth Bore Coalition (FBC). 

A consultant who works on the human factors for computer game designers, Smulka is a member of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association, one of the groups that make up the FBC. 

Smulka signed the agreement, as did FBC attorney Stuart Flashman, Caltrans Director Will Kempton and Janet Wong, the agency’s lawyer.  

“We would have liked to have gotten more,” Smulka said, but Gov. Schwar-zenegger’s pending move to exempt highway construction projects from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) spurred the push to reach a settlement. 

“Given the choice, we certainly would have liked to win many more mitigations for the city and for other neighborhoods that will be impacted by a five-and-a-half-year, round-the-clock construction project,” she said. “Even with a temporary, 40-foot-high sound barrier, noise will be quite high for neighborhoods that are near the project.” 

The FBC is an alliance of the Berkeley Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association, East Bay Bicycle Coalition. Friends of Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt, North Hills Phoenix Association, Parkwoods Community Association and the Rockridge Community Planning Council. 

Highway 13 is known for the greatest part of its course through the city as Ashby Avenue, turning into Tunnel Road east of Claremont Avenue. The highway carries traffic to and from the city, intersecting with Highway 24 not far from the tunnel. 

The Berkeley funds are to be spent on traffic signals and signal timing, and for improvements that make the road safer for cyclists and pedestrians, according to the 11-page agreement filed with the court of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch. 

According to the agreement, “projects will be selected by the City of Berkeley,” with the approval of the FBC and subject to final approval by Caltrans based on safety and feasibility. 

An agreement with Oakland was signed last June under threat of a lawsuit, giving that city $8 million in mitigation projects to offset project impacts. 

Smulka said there are still important environmental issues on the table, and talks with Caltrans will continue. 

She said the FBC will remain involved, insuring that the provisions of the agreement are carried out. 

The FBC filed a petition Nov. 13, 2007, challenging the decision by Caltrans a month earlier to certify the tunnel project’s environmental impact report, a CEQA requirement before any major construction project with significant impacts on the physical or human environments can be approved. 

All of the arguments had been finished and the case was in Judge Roesch’s hands pending a decision when the settlement was reached. 

Among the Tunnel Road/Ashby Ave-nue improvements won by the FBC are: 

• Caltrans will designation a public information officer to liaise with FBC and neighbors. 

• Shielding of nearby neighborhoods from construction lighting, with contractors required to respond to violations within 24 hours. 

• Construction of the sound wall between Caldecott Lane and Highway 24. 

• Installation and monitoring of sound- measuring hardware at the site, along with a 24-hour complaint line. 

• Advance notice of construction blasting, and a ban on blasting between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. 

• Restriction on trucking and stockpiling soils to minimize impacts on neighborhoods and their streets.  

Caltrans also agreed to spend up to $50,000 to fence and protect FROG (Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt) Park from construction debris and to grant a 10-year lease extension on the park to the City of Oakland plus two five-year options. An additional $100,000 will be spent on park improvements, bike lane improvements at nearby intersections or a study of transportation management issues in the area. 

The settlement also gives FBC and its attorneys $100,000 for legal fees and costs.