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Community Voice: They Break the Law, We Get the Traffic

Massive traffic jams on our freeways is what Sacramento has to look forward to thanks to City Hall’s unlawful handling of Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the Kings arena.

EIRs are required by the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is not just about beetles, snakes, and hawks. It’s a tool, when used properly, to help protect us humans from excessive noise, air pollution, traffic congestion, etc.

CEQA is revolutionary in the sense of requiring government agencies to actually consider consequences of major land use decisions before those decisions are made.

CEQA, through the EIR process, requires officials, and helps citizens, to learn about big problems with a proposed project and about steps to manage those problems. Crucially, officials must honestly consider reasonable alternatives that cause fewer/smaller problems than initial proposals based on politicians’ whims or cronyism.

Unfortunately, several documents and official statements indicate that before the arena EIR was even written, the process of evaluating alternatives to downtown was being skewed. The EIR itself says that outside pressures and City Hall’s definition of project parameters tilted the EIR away from non-downtown alternatives.

Significantly, ample vacant land is available at the site of the present arena in Natomas, where freeway ramps were designed to handle arena crowds.

It appears City Hall made a “substantive” decision to put the arena downtown before the EIR provided any guidance—which is illegal under CEQA. Whitewashing problems and rigging the selection of alternatives would be illegal, too.

But City Hall went through the motions of an EIR. It gathered, analyzed and (theoretically) organized findings in a draft EIR; made the draft available to the public to review and comment upon; and released a final EIR consisting of the public comments matched with official responses—along with various changes, deletions, additions or corrections to the draft.

You can download the draft and final EIRs at portal.cityofsacramento.org in the “Planning Entitlements” section. If you poke around, you’ll probably agree: this EIR was less about spotlighting problems than about making itself unreadable.

My favorite section is “Comments and Responses,” which exposes problems with the EIR and reveals bureaucrats trying to disguise those problems. Here is a taste. One public comment knocked the draft for saying vehicles exiting J Street at I-5 on game nights would be blocked for “more than 10 minutes.” The data showed 14 minutes, 39 seconds. City Hall’s response was that “more than 10 minutes” was accurate enough.

Another comment cited a footnote admitting that traffic flow projections in the EIR were wrong. Real traffic would be much worse. The computer model failed to factor in the real-life bottlenecks along I-5. Didn’t this vital information deserve more than a footnote?

City Hall’s response: “The use of footnotes such as this to explain results is standard practice…”

Caltrans commented that its analysis showed every Kings home game would back up traffic along southbound I-5 from J Street across the American River and deep into Natomas. Interstate-80 traffic entering southbound I-5 would completely back up on the connecting ramps and congest traffic on I-80. Motorists escaping gridlock on I-80 would add more than 1,300 incoming vehicles to Highway 160/12th Street.

The EIR’s final word on this mess: “The project would exacerbate some freeway segments…”

Caltrans says there is no feasible fix for the J-Street ramps. We’ll just have to live with game night Carmageddon. However, it gets much worse.

The traffic predictions falsely assume arena attendance will be no more than 17,500, despite what the Kings have decreed. They bragged they will sometimes sell one to two thousand standing room tickets and allow 10,000 people to watch games from outside. If 10,000 free spots are available, will 20,000 people try their luck getting one?

The first two public comments above were made by former Director of Caltrans Adriana Gianturco Saltonstall, who, with me and 10 other Sacramento citizens, is suing City Hall for this unlawfully prepared EIR.

In my comment, I requested that the final EIR include traffic projections (presumably hours of gridlock) for those publicized larger crowds. City Hall refused.

Our suit is intended to lead to the drafting of an honest EIR and a spurred renegotiation of the city’s subsidy to the Kings billionaires, possibly saving Sacramentans hundreds of millions of dollars over 35 years.

Our first hearing is October 10.

Disclosure: Kevin Coyle is one of 12 Sacramento citizens suing City Hall for improper environmental review of the arena project.

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