Welcome to Pombo Country 

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

Page 6 of 7

In 2003, Pombo proposed that the six-lane, cars-only freeway would start at I-5, just west of Patterson in Stanislaus County. It would then run the traditional route of State Route 130, following the narrow, twisting path of Del Puerto Canyon Road and connecting with San Antonio Valley Road, which features several hundred switchbacks. It would traverse Mount Hamilton, past the Lick Observatory, before finally ending in East San Jose at I-680. Today the entire 63-mile trip takes about three hours -- if you know the roads well.

"From Alum Rock Avenue to the Isabel Bridge on the other side of Mount Hamilton, there are 365 switchbacks; I know, because I counted them once with my kids," said local Mike McNaughton, referring to a section of wilderness that would make up less than half of the new freeway. "Not curves -- there have to be more than a thousand of those -- but switchbacks, where you have to downshift into second gear and make tight turns."

In essence, the new freeway would have to cut through a large segment of a rugged, 150-mile-long mountain range where no natural pass exists. The thousands of square miles of the Diablo range have two natural passes, the Altamont to the north and the Pacheco to the south. But those passes already have highways that connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area -- I-580 and state Highway 152. What Pombo is proposing is essentially akin to building a new freeway directly over Mount Diablo.

"It's known as 'Pombo's Folly,'" said Congresswoman Lofgren, a moderate Democrat who strongly opposes the freeway plan. "Assuming you ever build it, and I don't, it would cost in the billions."

The remote countryside between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley is one of the best-kept secrets in the Bay Area. Picture the Sunol Regional Wilderness going on for mile after mile over a dizzying array of hills, mountains, and valleys. The rolling grasslands and pine-covered peaks are studded with oaks and cattle ranches and are teeming with wildlife: rattlesnakes, eagles, bobcats, tule elk, red-tailed hawks, and mountain lions. Not surprisingly, it's also habitat for endangered and threatened species, such as the bay checkerspot butterfly, the California red-legged frog, and, of course, the San Joaquin kit fox.

In its Mount Hamilton Project, the Nature Conservancy has steadily purchased 61,000 acres over the years to maintain as open space. But the group, which prides itself on being less confrontational than other environmental organizations, is worried about having a six-lane roadway divide and fragment habitat. "People need area to roam ... it's the same for animals; they need territory in which to roam, to find food, to find a mate, or to escape from fire," said Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for the conservancy. "It's simple: Development fragments landscape."

Some locals and ranchers also oppose the freeway plan. "I wish they would take that money and improve the roads that are already here," said McNaughton, who once taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Del Puerto Canyon. "That would make the locals happy."

But Pombo's Folly already is making some landowners happy. Sean McNaughton, who operates the Newman-based real-estate agency Westside Associates with his father, Mike, believes that speculation alone already has drawn substantial interest to the area and is driving up property values. Westside Associates has represented several large property owners in Del Puerto Canyon in recent years. "Property out there is going like crazy," said Sean, who opposes the freeway and said he cautions his clients that it probably will never be built. "Almost everything I've had there is gone; I've had more business in the past two years there than ever."

Speculation about the possible new freeway almost certainly has driven up the value of the 205-acre ranch Pombo owns in south Tracy with his parents and brothers, even though the ranch is eighteen miles north of Del Puerto Canyon Road. The Pombo property sits right on I-580 and it's only a fifteen-minute freeway trip away.

But there are indications that Pombo is looking to move Route 130 farther north, closer to Tracy. It's unclear exactly what path it would take. Caltrans officials previously expressed skepticism about the old freeway plan and now refuse to comment altogether. Some locals have heard rumors that the new freeway might parallel 580, just south of the Altamont Pass, and slice through the wine country of southern Livermore and southern Pleasanton before linking up with 680 north of Sunol. That strip certainly is much less rugged than the original proposed route.

The final version of the transportation bill is not particularly illuminating, but appears to indicate that state Route 130 is to be moved north into San Joaquin County, and thus closer to Tracy, which is at the southern end of the county. There are two line items referring to the freeway. The first is for $1.6 million and states: "Conduct Study of SR 130 Realignment Project, San Joaquin County and Santa Clara County, CA." The second line item is for $6 million and states: "CA Feasibility study for constructing SR 130 Realignment Project connecting the Central Valley and San Joaquin County and Santa Clara County."

If the freeway is moved north, it probably would not be so expensive, and would wreak far less environmental damage. But it also would be much closer to Pombo's property, thereby adding even more value to it. Property records show that his parents also own 183.6 acres of property next to the 205-acre ranch south of Tracy. The total 388.6 acres are currently assessed at $1.19 million, but are worth far more on the open market, especially if developers believe a freeway is going to be built close by.

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