Protecting Niles Canyon
Stopping Caltrans’ damaging and unnecessary project
to widen Highway 84 through Niles Canyon and promoting road safety measures
that do not damage the creek
The California Department of Transportation began a damaging and unnecessary project to widen Highway 84 through Niles Canyon along Alameda Creek, supposedly for road safety. This controversial project would have actually made the canyon more dangerous for drivers and cyclists, wasted $76 million in public funds, degraded important trout habitat in Alameda Creek and jeopardized a decade of restoration efforts, blighted a designated scenic highway and ruined the natural beauty of Niles Canyon.
Caltrans initially proposed three phases of a road widening project for much of Niles Canyon Road between Fremont and Interstate 680, with 12-foot lanes, 2-foot median and 8-foot shoulders throughout the canyon. This would require cutting 600 trees along Alameda Creek and filling the creek and floodplain with four miles of cement retaining walls and rip-rap to accommodate wide roadway shoulders. It would damage habitat for steelhead trout, Alameda whipsnakes and red-legged frogs and remove rare sycamore forest.
Caltrans did not focus on localized problem areas or evaluate simple solutions within the existing roadway such as signal lights, radar speed signs, median barriers or additional rumble strips. Caltrans internally “approved” phase one of the project in 2006 without alerting the public that it had been finalized. Caltrans filed a “Negative Declaration,” claiming no significant environmental impacts, rather than the required Environmental Impact Report for a project with significant impacts. Caltrans cut nearly 150 trees in the canyon in spring of 2011, over the protests of local residents.
The Alameda Creek Alliance filed suit challenging the inadequate environmental review, winning a court order halting construction in June 2011 and a settlement agreement from Caltrans in December 2011 requiring them to abandon the first phase of the project. An Alameda Superior Court judge excoriated the agency’s clandestine project approval and obstruction of the public process. In January 2012 Caltrans agreed to restart the environmental review and public comment process for phases one and two of the project. After a July 2012 Federal Highway Administration Road Safety Assessment rejected Caltrans’ proposed highway widening approach, Caltrans promised a “clean slate” and pledged to consider all FHA recommendations before meeting with stakeholders and the public to develop new revised projects and a new environmental review process.
The FHA proposed several dozen immediate measures within the existing roadway that can be quickly and inexpensively implemented to reduce vehicle collisions, and site-specific projects for five priority locations in Niles Canyon to reduce accidents.
As of early 2015, Caltrans is now proposing four scaled-back safety improvement projects in Niles Canyon:
1) Alameda Creek Bridge Replacement Project
The draft Environmental Impact Report for the project was released in January 2015. Construction is scheduled for 2017-2018. The project would replace and upgrade the Alameda Creek Bridge, and realign the eastern and western approaches to the bridge. It would require significant cut and fill, installation of large retaining walls, and cutting 300-400 native trees.
2) Niles Canyon Minor Safety Improvements Project
The project is currently in design, with construction scheduled for 2015-2016. The project will conduct various minor safety improvements in Niles Canyon recommended by the FHA; all improvements will be made on paved surfaces, with negligible environmental impacts, and off-pavement work will not be authorized.
3) Niles Canyon Medium-Term Safety Improvements Project
The project is currently in the environmental phase. The draft environmental document is expected sometime in 2015, construction is anticipated for 2017-2018. The project will conduct various FHA-recommended safety improvements at including the installation of rock drapery systems, curve correction, and the addition of spot shoulder widening and guard railing.
4) Arroyo de la Laguna Bridge Improvement
The project is in the early planning stages and is expected to begin the environmental phase in winter of 2015. The project proposes to widen the bridge on Highway 84, near the town of Sunol, by three feet. Widening will be done to the extent feasible without adding any additional substructures.
Take Action: Tell Caltrans that replacing and upgrading the Alameda Creek Bridge does not require overbuilt roadway approaches and the bridge segment can be made safer without massive cut-and-fill or removing hundreds of trees.