With unprecedented vigor, California’s Dept. of Transportation is leveraging the state's environmental laws in order to raise more money for road and freeway construction. Caltrans is suing cities and builders for not mitigating projects impacts on highways, as outlined under state law. The state agency, as a result, hopes to collect more funds for highway expansion projects and other improvements that relieve congestion.

Caltrans is recognizing that we need to be more strategic and smarter about raising funds for freeways,” says R. Gregg Albright, the agency’s deputy director for planning and modal programs. "There just isn't enough of a revenue stream otherwise. The consequences of not doing this are significant."

Although the state voters recently approved $20 billion in bonds for transportation projects in November, there is still a projected funding shortfall. Caltrans has had the authority to force developers to pay impact fees for decades but has opted not to use a heavy hand, Albright says. But it changed its policy a few years ago and has become more aggressive recently.

Legal challenges or threatened litigation over major projects in Sacramento, Fresno, Irvine and elsewhere have led to settlements. Last year, the state threatened to sue a shopping center developer in Salinas to pay for $1.1 million worth of work on that freeway. In Fresno, officials settled a lawsuit with Caltrans resulting in a $170,000 fee against the developer of an apartment complex. In 2003, for example, Caltrans filed suit over plans to develop the former El Toro Marine base in Irvine into a park that would include new homes and stores. The state argued that the project's environmental impact reports underestimated the number of car trips the development would generate, resulting in a settlement within weeks. Caltrans, as a result, will collect substantial fees if the project is approved.

Developers and municipalities say the suits a form of extortion. It forces them to pay up or see their projects bogged down in litigation indefinitely. Local governments also argue that funding could go toward local streets and more environmentally-friendly transportation projects.

It is very apparent that these lawsuits have become nothing more than a fundraising source for Caltrans," says Rex Hime, executive director of the California Business Properties Association, a Sacramento-based trade group.

Developers should contribute their fair share," responds Albright. "We don't want to stop projects. We want to avoid the collapse of a highway system that supports the economy."