An independent review recently released by the California State Transportation Agency has concluded that the California Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans, is out of step with the times and in need of major changes.

This assessment confirms that Caltrans is wasting public money and attempting to stifle public opinion, said Gary Graham-Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), in an interview with the Redwood Times.

Graham-Hughes, representing EPIC, was one of over 100 persons interviewed by a team from the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), a nonprofit organization managed by the University of Wisconsin, which conducted the review.

While acknowledging the hard work and dedication of Caltrans staff, the SSTI's report sharply criticized the agency for its continuing focus on highway projects in spite of state law calling for greenhouse gas reduction and studies showing that Californians are driving less.

The SSTI report indicated that the problem is as basic as the need for an updated mission statement that encompasses more than managing the highway system, but also improving other modes of transportation.

[Note: the full SSTI report can be found at http://www.calsta.ca.gov/.]

"I call it The Tale of Two Caltrans," Graham-Hughes said, adding, "Caltrans has a Jekyll and Hyde nature."

One Caltrans is represented by the employees working to keep the roads safe, "doing something every day for the community," said Graham-Hughes.

The other Caltrans is the powerful agency responsible for controversial projects like the Willits bypass now under construction, the Richardson Grove realignment scheduled to begin this summer, and the proposed realignment and widening of Highway 199 through the Smith River Canyon.

EPIC's website characterizes these projects as "environmentally damaging, expensive, and unnecessary." (See http://www.wildcalifornia.org/action-issues/rein-in-caltrans/)

EPIC joined a lawsuit asserting that Caltrans' environmental review of the Richardson Grove project was inadequate. In January 2014, the California Court of Appeals overturned the Humboldt County court's decision and found that Caltrans had failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act.

"Basically they're being a bully, pushing ahead even though they lost in court," said Graham-Hughes. If Caltrans actually begins construction without a full Environmental Impact Report, they will soon face more costly lawsuits, he predicted.

But Graham-Hughes quickly added, "This is not reflective of the local people working to keep our roads safe."

In a telephone conversation a few days after the interview with Graham-Hughes, the Redwood Times learned that Caltrans will be adjusting that projected start date.

"We will be updating our website to show that construction will not begin in 2014," said Scott Burger, Caltrans public information officer for Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Although Caltrans had not yet decided when construction would start, Burger advised that people keep an eye on the website. He could not comment on the cause for the delay at this time, he said.

On another topic, Graham-Hughes said EPIC is still following the county General Plan Update. On March 6 EPIC submitted a letter to the board of supervisors urging them to complete the review of the GPU themselves rather than send any of the elements back to the planning commission.

The board voted unanimously on Monday, March 10, to resume their deliberations on the Open Space Element of the GPU. [See related story in our March 18 issue, "Open Space Element back on board's table...."]

"EPIC ... continues to support the including of mitigation and implementation measures within the GPU that will benefit threatened and endangered species, and ultimately contribute to the recovery and restoration of all native biological diversity," the letter stated.

EPIC's letter also recommended that the supervisors "fulfill their obligations to the residents of Humboldt County and ensure that all efforts are made to reduce and eliminate the exposure of the County that might result from the failure of the GPU to abide by federal and state law...."

Graham-Hughes explained that EPIC will keep reaching out to other groups working on GPU issues, including those with different viewpoints. "It is imperative as executive director of EPIC that I keep the lines of communication open to all stakeholders," he said.