San Jose City Council eyes Caltrans in fight against litter, debris

SAN JOSE (KTVU) -- The San Jose City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to allow the city manager to negotiate with Caltrans in an effort to remove mounting piles of trash along city highways.

Council members are frustrated with the level of debris along the city's public thoroughfares and one council member wants Caltrans to reimburse the city for cleaning up debris along the transit system's property.

Officials said it's not hard to miss the litter and graffiti that clutters the areas in San Jose along Interstate 280 or any of the other main freeways.

Ralph Roberts drives a tractor-trailer for a living and said he sees the piles of garbage all the time.

"I see debris all over," he said. "I see tire casings all over the place."

"People feel that it's taking us down," Council member Pierliugi Oliverio said. "It's dirty, it's filthy, it's blighted and there's been no improvement."

After complaining for years, Oliverio wants to hold Caltrans accountable. He said the freeways are so filthy, he's now proposing potential litigation, fining or billing the state agency to clean up the public areas of San Jose.

"The city of Oakland threatened litigation (against) Caltrans and then Caltrans got really interested in making sure the area was clean," he said.

But Mayor Sam Liccardo was skeptical.

"I don't know of a single city that has successfully sued the State of California," he said.

Liccardo agrees the highways are in horrible shape. However, he said he is focused on what he calls "real solutions."

"Filing lawsuits and waiting four years for legal process isn't the answer for me," he said. "I want Caltrans to get out there (and) clean it up."

The mayor points to a just-approved $3 million contract with Caltrans and the County of Santa Clara to have San Jose Conservation Corps and alternative work programs assist with clean-up.

Oliverio described those efforts as a piece-meal approach.

"Clearly it's not enough," he said. "Caltrans needs to do more."

The mayor has said Caltrans is dealing with a perfect storm of problems with crew vacancies and homeless encampments along the freeways. As for next steps, the city attorney will also likely meet with the council in closed session to discuss their legal options.

As San Jose was taking aim at Caltrans, a coalition of East Bay homeless people and advocates sued the transit agency in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland Tuesday, accusing the agency of illegally seizing and destroying property during sweeps of homeless encampments.

The plaintiffs include four people who have camped on Caltrans property in Oakland and one who lived under the Interstate 580 overpass on Gilman Street in Berkeley.

The laim that Caltrans and its staff sometimes clear out encampments with inadequate notice, misleading notice or no notice and then sometimes destroy homeless people's property in trash compactors without giving them a chance to move it.

The destroyed property includes items needed for survival, such as clothing, medicine, tents, bedding, and personal papers, according to the lawsuit.

"Homeless individuals are able to possess very little in the way of personal property," the lawsuit says.

"But because of their plight, the few possessions they do have are critical to these individuals' health, wellbeing and any hope they have of finding the stable shelter that so many people take for granted," it contends.

Four of the homeless plaintiffs say their administrative claims to Caltrans for their property were denied and the fifth says he was never able to reach anyone at a telephone number posted by Caltrans.

The other plaintiffs in the case are the Homeless Action Center, the Western Regional Advocacy Project and two Alameda County volunteers who work with homeless people.

By KTVU reporter Azenith Smith. Bay City News contributed to this report.

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