Welcome to Pombo Country 

Congressman Richard Pombo always sides with property owners. Sometimes that includes his own family.

Page 5 of 7

Widening I-205, which connects I-5 to I-580 from Lathrop through Tracy, would seem to be just the type of project that Pombo would wholeheartedly support. But instead his answer is to build two entirely new freeways, for which he recently obtained $21.6 million in federal funds. "This package delivers solutions to ease the congestion and bring us closer to a seamless transportation plan," Pombo declared in a statement. "Our existing roads and highways weren't constructed to accommodate the volume of commuters we see traveling every day."

Based on the overwhelming support for it, the widening of 205 from four lanes to six is easily the single most important transportation issue in the Tracy area. The project also is vital to tens of thousands of East Bay drivers who get caught up in the bottleneck every Friday and Sunday on their way to and from the mountains. Yet Pombo obtained no federal money for the project, and instead used his political capital on his own freeway projects, neither of which has nearly as much support.

Ort Lofthus, the leader of the I-205 widening campaign, was reluctant to criticize his congressman for not publicly backing the effort or securing federal funds for it. But Lofthus acknowledged that the $21.6 million would have come in handy for the I-205 project, which is currently struggling to get built. As it now stands, the project likely won't be completed anytime soon unless the state approves a complicated local funding plan that requires San Joaquin County taxpayers to loan Caltrans most of the needed funds.

One of Pombo's freeway plans, known as the state Route 239 project, would run along the path of the two-lane Byron Highway from the western end of Tracy northwest to Brentwood. There, it would connect with the Highway 4 bypass currently scheduled for construction. Brentwood political leaders have been pushing for the new freeway to provide the city with a thruway to Interstates 5, 580, and 205. The plan is to attract white-collar and industrial businesses and transform the city from a bedroom community to a job center. "It's essential for Brentwood -- they need a better connection to the south," said Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. The new freeway proposal also will give Tracy commuters a connection to the north, and an alternative commute route to the East Bay.

But the arrival of the $14 million in federal funds for the 239 project also happens to coincide with a multimillion-dollar land deal currently underway with members of Pombo's family. And for the Pombos, the new freeway proposal appears to be a timely solution to some family financial difficulties compounded by the 2000 slow-growth measure.

For the past decade, public records show, the congressman's aunt, uncle, and first cousins have been selling Pombo family real estate to pay off debts. The debts came from the estate of the congressman's uncle, Ernest Pombo, who died in 1994. At his death, his assets were valued at $20 million, most of which was large pieces of property he owned around Tracy, according to probate records. But he also owed at least $4.7 million in outstanding loans, plus millions more in state and federal taxes. According to probate records, the debts have to be paid off before his family could divide the estate and split the millions they were slated to inherit.

But after the slow-growth measure passed in 2000, the numbers of properties sold by the Pombo estate slowed, probate records show. This is not surprising. Slow-growth measures make large tracts of land less desirable because developers are prohibited from developing them. But there's one proposed land deal involving Pombo property not affected by the measure. The deal happens to be at the heart of the city's landmark development plan.

Tracy city leaders have been dreaming for the past half-decade about a 538-acre business park on the western edge of town. It's called the Tracy Gateway Project, and it will feature a golf course, lakes, and bike paths surrounded by retail, office buildings, and 20,000 white-collar workers. "It's going to be the Hacienda Business Park out here," said Tracy's director of economic development, Andrew Malick, referring to the successful business park in Pleasanton that helped turn that city into a job hub. "It's going to be our destination for employment."

About 365 acres of that destination also happens to be on land currently owned by the estate of Ernest Pombo. Another 155 acres of the project is owned by the Ornellas family -- Leroy Ornellas is a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and a friend and ally of Richard Pombo. All of this property is now in a prime location, right next to the starting point of the new freeway, Route 239. According to property records inspected in early August, the Pombo estate owns a total of 681 acres of vacant land next to where the Byron Highway connects with I-205. The property is assessed at $5.28 million, but it's likely worth far more now that it's at the junction of a probable new freeway, according to two Central Valley real-estate experts who spoke on condition of anonymity.

As of last week, the Pombo estate was in final negotiations to sell the property to the developers who will build the Gateway Project, Malick said. And according to probate records, the Pombo estate appears to be close to finally paying off its debts. A large land deal could be just what it needs to allow the congressman's cousins to finally divide up the estate and inherit the millions they were promised a decade ago.

Across town, the other proposed freeway also could be a boon for the congressman and his family -- even if it's never built. Pombo has been pushing this proposal, the State Route 130 Project, for at least two years. After his 2003 bill to study the freeway plan failed to get off the ground, he announced early this year that he would attempt to obtain $2 million for a study in the 2005 transportation bill authored by his good friend, Republican Congressman Don Young of Alaska. By the time Bush signed Young's bill on August 10, the $2 million had ballooned to $7.6 million.

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