Commerce Approves Washington Blvd Project
By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer
A city council that has championed environmental issues in the past unanimously approved a project on May 4 that some in the local environmental justice community say serves industrial interests rather than the health of the community.
Commerce Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio acknowledged that because of her own personal stake in environmental health issues – she blames her father’s cancer on pollution – “Some may say well, how could you?”
“But this is exactly why. This project will allow traffic to be more fluid, if you will, and that’s exactly the reason why I stand behind this project,” she said.
The project will rebuild Washington Boulevard with concrete, which can cut down on the need for maintenance on a road well-traveled by cargo-bearing vehicles that create “bath-tub” sized indentations and potholes.
While the city and local environmentalists agree the roads need to be more durable, they differ on widening the road from two-lanes to three. The city says this plan would decrease congestion, while environmentalists contend more lanes means more traffic and air pollution.
The city’s decision was “disheartening and very unfortunate,” environmental activist Isella Ramirez told EGP after the meeting.
“It definitely makes me step back and reconsider what their position as a council is, in regards to environmental health and justice. The way that the mayor talked about environmental issues is very disjointed from the real health concerns,” she says.
Ramirez is co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, which has in the past counted on the council to throw its support behind various environmental issues within and outside the community.
While asking the city to hold off on making a decision on the project, Ramirez invoked the city council’s advocacy of community health in other issues such as railyard regulation and port projects.
“But tonight you are not playing the commentator. Tonight you are the decision-maker. And the ball is in your court… if this project is not analyzed correctly and approved hurriedly it will prove to be detrimental to our community’s health,” she told the council.
While the city believes it is an “important project” that will improve the environment and its residents’ health, East Yard has waged a campaign against the project on the basis that increased lanes would only attract more vehicles and make congestion worse.
They point to research saying additional lanes will “induce” more traffic. “As one engineer once said ‘addressing congestion by adding lanes is like addressing obesity by losing your belt,’” the groups’ Co-executive Director Angelo Logan told EGP this week.
Attorneys also spoke on behalf of East Yard’s position during the public hearing. “We think the disingenuous nature of arguing that adding an additional lane in each direction on Washington Blvd will not result in an increase in traffic is laughable at best,” said Adrian Martinez, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney told council during the hearing.
Del Rio meanwhile says she stands by her decision, pointing to the staff’s presentation, which included an overview of the environmental impact report made by consultants and statements by a traffic analyst. All of her questions “were answered this evening, so I appreciate that,” Del Rio told staff.
The council was also assured that the findings of the EIR would hold up in court. “We’ve heard a lot of concerns, and opinion, and speculation of what would happen with the road improvement project, but we haven’t heard anything that rises to the level of substantial evidence that casts doubt on the staff’s and expert opinion for the conclusions of the EIR,” Sabrina Teller, the city’s attorney on the project, told council.
East Yard said the city has not considered a federal environmental impact study under the National Environmental Policy Act, which the city would need to fulfill in order to get federal funding. Teller told the city that Commerce could still approve the project with an EIR that passes CEQA requirements.
City spokesperson Brian Wolfson says the findings of the environmental impact report and studies differ from what East Yard and some community members believe. “The studies don’t lead to the conclusion that the additional lane will be traffic inducing, but additional lanes does accommodate the growth that’s happening at the regional level,” he said.
The consultants said the issue of traffic inducement would not be a problem on Washington Blvd because most cars on the street are actually going to destinations on the street, rather than passing through, or using the street as a shortcut as in cases of traffic inducement. Also, the project would only affect 2.8 miles, too short of a distance to attract traffic from drivers who travel on parallel roads, they claim.
By the same token, if nothing is done, the city staff foresees a congestion problem in the year 2035 that could not be handled by the current road, according to Wolfson. “Doing nothing would lead to congestion,” he said.
Ramirez and other speakers questioned the need for the project since congestion on the street does not currently exceed the standards and said that the city’s consultants are overstating the future increase in congestion.
In response, the EIR consultants, while acknowledging that their estimates for future congestion is conservative, said it was their responsibility to not underestimate that increase.
Some speakers also said the city did not consider an alternative in which trucks could be re-routed to Bandini Boulevard, located in a more industrial area south of Washington. Currently the project would affect residents in the Sheila apartments, but because the EIR consultants don’t foresee increased congestion from the project, there would not be additional impacts.
The consultants said they rejected the Bandini Blvd alternative because the traffic studies don’t seem to show that drivers along Washington Blvd are using Bandini as an alternative. They also say that an alternative on Bandini is in a different area and does not meet this particular project’s objectives.
Speakers from East Yard also talked about safety around residential areas, where children could be in danger from truck traffic along Washington Blvd. Many other residential neighborhoods also surround the street, though the EIR report does not address them because they are not directly adjacent to the street and commercial buildings serve as a physical separation.
Ramirez believes industry interests were a deciding factor in the council’s decision. She pointed to a comment by a “community member who had said it’s a struggle between goods movement and public health.”
“I think … that’s what was happening today and it’s obvious that goods movement trumped public health in the City of Commerce today,’ she said.
Logan says the source of the project funding and statements in their draft EIR don’t fit with what the city is saying about the project’s goals of decreasing traffic. On the one hand, the funding is aimed at a series of regional transportation projects “designed to expand capacity for increased volumes of freight traffic.”
But on the other hand, the council has “stated that this project will not increase traffic volumes and will actually have a regional air quality benefit,” he said.
Wolfson says characterizations that industry and the goods movement won out over the community’s health is unfair. “We really believe strongly that this is good for the community. It’s a really important project,” he told EGP this week.
Acknowledging that the project has benefits for the industrial community as well, Wolfson went on to say “the council’s difficulty in all of this is the balancing of residential needs with our industrial city, because we are an industrial city. There is always a difficulty in addressing those two, at times, opposing needs. We don’t see it as a triumph of goods movement… the improvements serve industry and also serve the residential community.”
The city approved the final EIR and a project alternative in which parking, which had been eliminated in the original plan alternatives, would be allowed only during non-peak hours.Print This Post
May 13, 2010 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.