The state transportation agency pushed “pause” on a disruptive freeway project after it ran afoul of Emeryville and Oakland.
After major pushback from Emeryville, Oakland, and Alameda County officials, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has delayed a major construction project that would tear down the “MacArthur Maze,” a series of overpasses connecting the I-80, I-580, and I-880 freeways near the eastern entrance to the Bay Bridge. Adding to their frustration, city officials say the purpose of the project isn’t clear, while other capital improvement projects on nearby state highways languish.
Emeryville residents, including Councilmember John Bauters, were alarmed to receive a notice in March of a public hearing at Caltrans District 4 offices that had already taken place in February, where the project’s environmental assessment was laid out. “Caltrans has been working on this project for almost two years and never contacted Alameda County, Oakland, Emeryville or any of the regional boards that oversee transportation or air quality standards about their work on this proposal,” Bauters wrote in response.
Bauters immediately called Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who also had no prior knowledge of the project. Schaaf, who told KQED she was “furious” over the situation, called officials at the Port of Oakland, who were similarly caught by surprise.
Earlier in the year, Caltrans issued a Draft Environmental Document (DED) as required under California’s environmental laws. The state agency ultimately provided a “Negative Declaration,” meaning the project would have no adverse impacts. But Emeryville and Oakland officials immediately pointed to major traffic issues the project would create, as closing freeway ramps for construction would divert thousands of trucks and commuters onto smaller surface streets.
Emeryville officials remain concerned that the project as currently designed would displace thousands of freeway commuters onto surface streets in the city, exacerbating traffic, slowing down public transit, and endangering pedestrians near school crossings. As a result of Emeryville’s pushback, Caltrans held a second public meeting on April 10th, and extended the online period for public comment until April 24th.
In a brutal 13-page letter, Emeryville’s City Manager Christine Daniel excoriated Caltrans District 4 planners for its environmental assessment, which “erroneously concludes that there is no impact” from the project. For example, while Caltrans had concluded that public transit would not be impacted, Daniels pointed out that one of the designs would block street access to a new facility for Emery Go-Round, the city’s free shuttle service. Additionally, Daniel wrote, the study left out residential areas in Southwest Emeryville and the Regional Bay Trail from its studies.
Caltrans appears to have heard the city loud and clear. The project is now indefinitely delayed.
“Caltrans is temporarily pausing the project to ensure all stakeholders have ample opportunity to weigh in on the project and the proposed alternatives,” said Caltrans District 4 spokesperson Chiconda Davis. “There are still many opportunities for the public to be engaged and we are committed to continued involvement from the community as we partner with the cities and all stakeholders to select the most appropriate alternative. This project is only funded through the environmental phase.”
That was hardly enough for the irate Councilmember Bauters, who insisted that the process should start all over again, if at all.
“I welcome the statements from Caltrans District 4 staff indicating a desire to engage the local communities most impacted by this proposed project,” Bauters said in an interview. “I remain concerned by Caltrans's repeated statements that they have ‘hit pause’ on this project while they engage the community. If Caltrans is sincere about listening to those who will be impacted by this project, they will rescind the Draft Environmental Document and start this process over in partnership with the communities they excluded.”
Further straining relations between local stakeholders and the state agency, critics contend that the need for the MacArthur Maze project itself remains unclear.
“We’re pleased with this outcome—they listened to us, and they delayed it,” said Bike East Bay organizer Dave Campbell. “But Caltrans is saying this project is for trucks, yet we haven’t seen the data on that yet. Where’s the truck data?” More specific data, however, would not be available during this phase of the project.
Spokesperson Chiconda Davis explained that the Maze was part of a larger effort at Caltrans to optimize bridges throughout the state. “These bridges at the MacArthur Maze top the fix-it list for freight route bridges in California that don’t meet federal and state height standards,” Davis said. “Caltrans is improving 30 bridges statewide in the Bay Area and Southern California, including these bridges at the MacArthur Maze. We already raised seven bridges on I-80 between Reno and San Francisco.”
Councilmember Bauters said he hoped the pause in the project would enable the agency to make other major repair projects for state highways in the East Bay a higher priority—namely those at Gilman and Ashby, with major access issues for all vehicles.
Bauters concluded on a note of dry optimism: “The people of Emeryville are necessary stakeholders in this project as it would have major impacts on their community,” he said. “I intend to fully defend their right to a proper public process, and I look forward to working with Caltrans on behalf of my community.”
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