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Ron Bottorff: The SCV’s own bridge to nowhere?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: April 21, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 21, 2011 1:55 a.m.

In 1998, when the Army Corps of Engineers approved Newhall Land and Farming Co.’s first Santa Clara River-alteration permit, the housing market was still in good shape. This approval gave Newhall Land the go-ahead for 59 projects along 15 miles of the Santa Clara River through the center of the city and up San Francisquito Canyon road, one of the Santa Clara River’s largest tributaries. These projects included several bridges, culverts and banking along the river.

The Friends of the Santa Clara River and other environmental organizations commented extensively on this project, hoping to preserve habitat for native species, and ensure water quality and groundwater recharge as the projects were built.

Some of our efforts were successful. For instance, the preservation of native habitat along the river by the Bridgeport neighborhood, Jefferson Apartments and up San Francisquito Creek was due in large part to the requirements of this permit, shaped by public comment. Today, everyone enjoys hiking or biking the trails along these natural areas.

Out of many concerns, the time frame of the permit, some 20 years in length, might have been the most troubling. Obviously, things change in 20 years. With permits approved that far in advance, it is difficult to anticipate future needs or pitfalls. And once the permit is approved, it is difficult to change legally. 

However, the Army Corps proposed five-year reviews of the permit. The Friends and others felt this was a sufficient safeguard. As it turned out, the Army Corps’ concept of “review” was different from that of the public’s.

It apparently meant an internal review, in which the public would not be involved. By not involving the public, the Army Corps of Engineers, in our view, has missed an opportunity to ensure that this permit works properly.

Many of the projects envisioned in this permit have not been built in spite of the addition of some 5,000 housing units in this area. This includes a bridge extension over the Santa Clara River for Avenue Tibbits. Not only did this bridge turn out to be a very expensive, and a thus-far unneeded proposal, but also that area of the river is a prime habitat area for several endangered bird species. Its loss would not be replaceable.

The Commerce Center Bridge, proposed for an area just west of the I-5 and Highway 126 junction is another unbuilt project covered by this river permit. It will be connected to Highway 126 by a huge and expensive cloverleaf interchange paid for by the state and federal governments.

It is supposed to serve the 4,400 units in the Newhall Ranch Mission Village project, but this project is still not approved. Even if this housing project receives a go-ahead from the county, with the current housing downturn, there is no telling when, if ever, it will be built.

So why is the initial work on this expensive interchange and bridge proceeding?

The Commerce Center Bridge and interchange will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars at a time when state coffers are low, and the public is demanding budget reform. It is also in a sensitive habitat area in this section of the confluence of the Santa Clara River and Castaic Creek. 

Unlike Avenue Tibbits — which proved unnecessary even after 5,000 housing units were added to the area — there is not a single approved tract to be served by this bridge.

Is this bridge and interchange, Santa Clarita’s own expensive “bridge to nowhere?” With no residents to serve, and the current traffic at manageable levels into the foreseeable future, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate this project.

Such a re-evaluation would also help to slow our budget woes. Such a re-evaluation seems like a win-win, both for the environment and the taxpayers.

Ron Bottorff is chairman of the Friends of the Santa Clara River. “Environmentally Speaking” runs Thursdays.


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