Appellants claim project adversely affects low-income neighborhoods
■ Mary Ann Morris / Editor
The Riverside County Transportation Commission’s recent June 30 victory in Riverside Superior Court regarding the Mid County Parkway was short-lived when the Center for Biological Diversity filed an appeal in federal court July 28.
The appellants claim that the $1.7 billion, 16-mile freeway project would cut through low-income neighborhoods, threaten wildlife preserves and worsen air pollution. RCTC states its studies and the Final Environmental Impact Report are sound. Previously, both federal and state courts have sided with RCTC, saying the report meets requirements.
The Mid County Parkway is a proposed 16-mile transportation corridor that should relieve traffic congestion for east-west travel in western Riverside County between San Jacinto and Perris and will help address future transportation needs through 2040. An additional route in and out of the San Jacinto Valley will also help stimulate the stagnant economy the valley now experiences, say project proponents.
Appellants claim destruction of homes and wildlife habitats
Project opponents claim the project would displace almost 100 homes and 26 businesses in Perris, which would affect almost 400 residents and about 170 employees. Those in favor of the parkway say it’s necessary to accommodate a growing population throughout the county, particularly the San Jacinto Valley.
“This massive waste of taxpayer money won’t solve traffic problems, but it will break up neighborhoods and wildlife habitat,” said Aruna Prabhala, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the appealing groups. “Rather than offer 21st century transit solutions, the Federal Highway Administration shrugged off environmental laws and pushed through this boondoggle, which will hurt imperiled animals and force hundreds of people from their homes.”
Rather than uniting and bringing industry and development, as most proponents of the Mid County Parkway believe, it would “fragment the San Jacinto Valley and bring more sprawl and traffic to a rural area rich in agriculture, open space and wildlife preserves,” stated the release.
“This freeway project will literally pave the way for more industrial sprawl,” said Tom Paulek, conservation chair of Friends of Northern San Jacinto and former San Jacinto Wildlife Area manager. “I’m not opposed to improving Ramona Expressway. What I do oppose is the building of more homes and conversion of agricultural land, without concern as to the impact it will have on this valley.”
Proponents claim socioeconomic gains, better and safer community access
San Jacinto Councilman Andrew Kotyuk, who represents the City of San Jacinto on the RCTC board, said he wasn’t surprised by the appeal.
“It’s easy for the critics and litigation buzzards who don’t live here to tell us what’s best for the valley or try to stop good projects from coming here. We have had enough of their wailing and reap the sour benefits from their past efforts our community is trying to correct now,” said Kotyuk. “Initial claims were aimed at the San Jacinto State Wildlife Preserve. These 20,000 acres are protected and aren’t touched by the project. This failed [in that instance] and so they moved onto socioeconomic issues in Perris. Failed. Now they are claiming it will hurt the San Jacinto Valley.”
Riverside County has modeled the most stringent conservation plan, recognized nationally, said Kotyuk.
“Our valley wants to protect our beautiful environment and takes steps to do so. The San Jacinto Valley is focused on improving our socioeconomics,” he said. “Our demographics include unemployed, low income, and very low income. The Mid County Parkway will reopen our valley to Southern California with a modern corridor.
“This is something the valley hasn’t had since the ‘50s,” continued Kotyuk. “Keep in mind this project has to preserve and conserve a substantial amount of land, reduces greenhouse gases by eliminating traffic jams, and will reduce the number of head-on collisions with a safer route.”
According to Paulek, for proponents, it’s all about special interests.
“Kotyuk is a developer ally,” said Paulek. “He should spend a little bit more time considering what’s best for the public and not his business friends.”
Kotyuk, a San Jacinto Valley native, humbly and respectfully disagrees.
“As a native of this valley, I spent a decade volunteering at numerous charities making a difference. [Being] elected to lead change for the better at the City and region has been an honor. I, and our [City] Council, and valley, have fought to no longer be a stagnant community isolated from jobs and an economy,” said Kotyuk. “We seek to preserve our significant California history, eliminate the struggles of old trade corridors, bring prosperity to the very low and middle income residents, and protect a beautiful valley. I don’t see anything wrong with those values.”
According to the RCTC, all of the major transportation routes in the region already experience significant congestion. While projects for each major roadway are being designed now to ease congestion and ensure future mobility, traffic in the area of the proposed Mid County Parkway is projected to double in some segments and increase as much as three times in others.
“The Mid County Parkway will worsen our region’s struggling air quality and tear up neighborhoods with a permanent new source of diesel exhaust and soot,” said George Hague of the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club. “Instead of this wasteful new six-lane freeway, the county should be proposing cleaner and cheaper upgrades to the Ramona Expressway to improve traffic safety.”
Another east-west transportation link, such as the Mid County Parkway, is essential to reduce congestion and maintain and enhance the quality of life in western Riverside County. The Mid County Parkway will provide logical connections with north-south corridors including SR-79 and I-215. It will also serve multimodal bus and rail facilities planned as a part of the Perris Valley Line, Metrolink service that connects Perris to Riverside.
“When will the land and money grab stop?” asked Kotyuk. “This is a frivolous appeal wasting our hard-earned tax money.”
Hemet Mayor Linda Krupa, a member of the RCTC, was contacted for comment regarding this article. She did not respond.
Appellants in this case included: Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Riverside’s Hills, Friends of Northern San Jacinto Valley, Sierra Club and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.