The Highland-Redlands Regional Connector Project has been shelved due to an estimated $6.4 million in new and unexpected environmental costs from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), relating to San Bernardino kangaroo rat habitat within the project area. The bi-city project was designed to connect the two cities’ separate bike path and trails systems with the construction of approximately 4.7 miles of separated class 1 bike and pedestrian trail crossing Santa Ana River along Boulder Avenue/Orange Street.
City Manager Joseph Hughes informed Highland City Council of the development during its Dec. 14 meeting. The new plan is to halt efforts to construct the project but finish the design in order to have a “shelf ready” project as the two cities work to obtain additional grants and funding.
Construction was set to begin in late-2022 and be completed in third quarter of 2023.
The city’s original estimated total cost to complete the project was $4.5 million. Approximately $3.6 million of the original cost estimate was to be funded by a federal Active Transportation Program (ATP) grant that was awarded to the project in February 2016. That grant will now have to be forfeited, as construction cannot proceed as planned.
“It would now cost more in environmental mitigation than construction, which does not make this project viable,” said Highland City Engineer Carlos Zamano.
Due to the ATP grant and an additional $700,000 grant obtained for design costs, each city was only expecting to fund roughly 8 percent of a $4.5 million project and was not ready to fund what has now become an estimated $12 million endeavor, Zamano added.
The project completed its California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental documents in 2020, but the new environmental cost arose when seeking incidental take permits for the K-rat (an endangered species) from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which determined that the project would require mitigation for 31 acres.
The city of Highland’s estimated cost of this mitigation requirement is based on the current price for mitigation property, $200,000-plus per acre.
While the project area is entirely within public right-of-ways already held by the two cities, a portion of the project crosses the Santa Ana River and within DFW’s jurisdiction.
The project affects approximately 8 acres of K-rat habitat within the Santa Ana River Wash along Boulder/Orange, according to Zamano. The majority of the negative environmental impact would be temporary, relating to construction of the bikeway and bridge.
The CDFW calculates a mitigation ratio for each project based on quality of habitat affected and severity of disturbances (temporary and permanent) caused by the project. According to Zamano, the city was expecting a 1:1 mitigation ratio (one acre of mitigation for one acre negatively impacted), as it received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the CDFW issued a much higher ratio of nearly 4:1.
“This caught the project off guard,” Zamano said.
The project is meant to promote pedestrian and bicycle travel between the two cities for school, work and pleasure by providing a safer, more accessible and more appealing route for crossing Santa Ana River.
The plan is to construct 4.7 miles of bikeways and walkways from Arroyo Verde Elementary in Highland to Citrus Valley High School in Redlands, just south of Santa Ana River. It would connect Arroyo Verde Elementary, Highland Grove Elementary, Beattie Middle School in Highland to Israel Beal Park and Citrus Valley High School in Redlands.
For safety and comfort, a large portion of the new trails were to be Class 1 bike and pedestrian trails, completely separated from vehicle roadways. To accomplish this, a separate bike-pedestrian bridge was to be built across Plunge Creek east of Orange Street.
The project plan also adds bike and pedestrian paths within portions of Domestic Avenue, Orange Street, Boulder Avenue, Glenheather Drive, Eucalyptus Avenue and Streater Avenue.
It would also entail pavement widening, construction of curbs and gutters, curb ramps, median curbs, sidewalks, pavement repairs, bikeway and pedestrian paths, bike racks, bike signals, in-roadway bicycle detection, warning beacons, lighting, speed feedback signs and roadway signage.
“It’s still a good project,” Zamano said. “These are just environmental costs we will not be able to afford.”