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PCH Project Would Hurt Rare Frog and Snake, Say Groups

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San Francisco garter snake | Photo: Taka/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A project that would widen California's emblematic coastal highway through part of a Bay Area town has prompted a lawsuit from conservationists, who say the road-widening would harm local endangered species and their habitat.

The Calera Parkway Project would widen State Route 1 for 1.3 miles through the center of Pacifica, a beach town immediately south of San Francisco. Caltrans says the $52 million project, which would expand the road from four lanes to six, is necessary to relieve congestion.

But conservation groups say that project backers, including Caltrans, didn't follow state and federal rules in assessing the project's environmental impact. Among other things, they allege Caltrans and its cooperating agencies failed to inform other agencies and the public about the project's potential harm to protected species such as the red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake. And so those groups are hauling the Calera Parkway Project into federal court.

"We've filed suit because we care about the character and environment of Pacifica, and this project is out of scale with Pacifica's scenic nature," said Peter Loeb with Pacificans for a Scenic Coast. "The Caltrans plan is overkill that will have potentially drastic environmental impacts; it won't solve the traffic congestion problem nor does it fit with the character of Highway 1 in our community."

The group's co-plaintiffs in the suit are Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives and the Center for Biological Diversity. Named as defendants along with Caltrans are the city of Pacifica and San Mateo County, the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Among the allegations made in the suit are that USFWS and Caltrans didn't properly inform the National Park Service about the project's impacts to around 75 acres of habitat for the red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter, some of which is on land managed by NPS as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The San Francisco garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis tetrateaenia, was once common in Bay Area wetlands, but a century of development has pushed the attractive serpent to the edge of extinction. It was one of the first species added to the federal list of endangered species in 1967. The red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), added to the Threatened list in 1996, is a bit more widespread than the San Francisco garter, living in much of Central California west of the deserts.

The groups are asking the court to order a do-over of the road project's 2013 environmental impact assessment. They maintain that the massive project -- which would carve 3.7 million cubic feet of soil out of the existing landscape -- would make it harder for wildlife to migrate in the already habitat-fragmented peninsula.

"Caltrans is pushing a project that would needlessly damage scarce habitat for endangered San Francisco garter snakes and California red-legged frogs, without fully evaluating alternatives to dramatically widening Highway 1," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "A more complete and honest evaluation of the project impacts is required under federal environmental protection laws."

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