Originally published by East Bay Express 2005-08-24
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Welcome to Pombo Country
Congressman Richard Pombo always sides with property owners. Sometimes that includes his own family.
By Robert Gammon

Jon Langford
Richard Pombo

Chris Duffey
The Pombo family’s Tracy-area ranch.

Chris Duffey
Pombo’s family grossed tens of millions of dollars selling farm and ranch land that developers turned into suburban homes and strip malls.

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Pombo’s oddly shaped district is a good argument for depoliticizing the redistricting process.

Chris Duffey
Pombo recently obtained $21.6 million to study two proposed freeways from San Joaquin County to the East Bay and South Bay respectively.

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The first proposed freeway would end right next to 681

acres owned by the Pombos.

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The second proposed freeway would probably boost the value of Pombo family land near I-580.

Chris Duffey
Construction of a freeway in scenic Del Puerto Canyon would cost tens of billions of dollars.

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Tracy was just a cow town when Richard William Pombo was born in 1961. But it was destined to be a boomtown, because of its location at the foot of the only good road across the mountains between the East Bay and the Central Valley. As families crossed the Altamont Pass in search of affordable housing, Pombo's family stoked the town's growth -- and profited mightily from it.

Pombo's father and uncles grossed tens of millions of dollars selling farm and ranch land that developers turned into suburban homes and strip malls. His late uncle Ernest, a real-estate investor, broker, and rancher, was personally involved in so many land deals that the computer in the San Joaquin County Recorder's Office crashes when you type in his name and press "Enter." Even today, red and white Pombo Real Estate signs dot the landscape of Tracy and the neighboring countryside.

The tight-knit Pombo family plays a multifaceted role in the life of this fourth-generation Portuguese cattle rancher, born the second of five brothers. Pombo and his wife and children share a ranch with his parents and three of his brothers and their families. He also owns two lucrative businesses with his parents and brothers. He and his brothers -- Ralph Jr., Rodger, Raymond, and Randall -- even share a family tradition in names, after their father, Ralph. Pombo and his wife, Annette, continued the trend, naming their own children Richard Jr., Rená, and Rachel.

The Pombo name came in handy when Richard entered politics. Although his family was not particularly political while he was growing up, at the age of 29 Richard took a shot at public office, winning a seat on the Tracy City Council with a pro-growth property rights platform. The city was in the process of planning its future development, and Pombo made sure that Tracy's unbridled growth continued. Within two years, he had set his sights even higher: Congress.

"The night Richard told me he was thinking about running, I told him he was crazy," said Tracy Mayor Dan Bilbrey, a friend since both were elected to the council in 1990. "But he soon put that to rest."

Pombo ran a tightly focused and passionate campaign, in spite of his relative political inexperience. He railed against big government and environmentalists, whom he decried for using the Endangered Species Act to block property owners from developing their land. In a tough and particularly nasty election, he squared off against Democrat Patti Garamendi, wife of John Garamendi, California's insurance commissioner then and now. Patti Garamendi compared Pombo to Klansman David Duke, but he squeaked by her with a 48 to 46 percent victory.

Taking office in 1993, at the beginning of the angry-white-man revolution in Republican politics, Pombo was viewed by Bay Area Democrats as just another conservative from the western Central Valley. But interest heightened in 2001 when a dramatic redrawing of congressional boundaries added parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties to Pombo's Central Valley district. Suddenly the liberal East Bay was home to an archconservative congressman whom President George W. Bush affectionately calls "The Marlboro Man" because he often sports a cowboy hat and ostrich-skin boots.

Despite the scorn heaped upon him as the only Bay Area Republican in Congress, he remains wildly popular in Pombo Country, a nickname apparently bestowed upon his town by Daniel Borenstein of the Contra Costa Times. Strong support from voters in the western Central Valley helps Pombo consistently garner at least 60 percent of the vote on Election Day, and his constituents outside the East Bay view him as a tough-talking Western "straight-shooter" determined to battle special interests -- especially the environmental lobby.

Ironically, Pombo and his family can thank East Bay environmentalists for Tracy's eye-popping expansion and their good fortune. Slow-growth and no-growth initiatives in Alameda and Contra Costa counties spurred the housing boom in Tracy and Central Valley cities such as Lathrop, Manteca, and Patterson. Nonetheless, Pombo's primary legislative goal has long been to kill the Endangered Species Act and eliminate barriers to the use of private property. He even has likened the government's use of the species act across the western United States to protecting cockroaches in Manhattan apartment buildings. That's just one example of the over-the-top rhetoric that once prompted the Sierra Club to proclaim Pombo an "eco-thug."

Throughout the 1990s, Pombo ensconced himself in the far right-wing of the GOP, making friends and political allies, but having little legislative success. But more recently, his close relationship with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has helped him gain considerable power and influence. In early 2003, he leaped over more senior and moderate Republicans to become chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Native American casino gambling and the Endangered Species Act. At 42, he became the youngest committee chairman in Congress.

But Pombo's high-visibility chairmanship also helped call attention to a series of ethical woes reminiscent of those that bedevil his embattled congressional benefactor. He has been linked to a longtime DeLay confidante who was indicted two weeks ago on fraud charges. Last year, Pombo came under fire for using taxpayer dollars in apparent support of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. Most significantly, an article in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year revealed that Pombo's parents stood to gain financially from their son's behind-the-scenes lobbying in Washington.

But the charges in the Times article are not an isolated incident. A closer look at Pombo's career reveals a long-standing pattern of using the power of government in ways that would directly or indirectly benefit his family. The latest case involves the congressman's unwavering support for two new freeways that would link the Central Valley and East Bay in new locations.

Earlier this month, Pombo obtained $21.6 million in federal funds to study the projects, neither of which addresses the most pressing transportation issue in the Tracy area. One of the proposed freeways is so seemingly impractical that it has been called "Pombo's Folly" because of the time it would take to drive, the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to build, and the environmental havoc it would wreak.

What's more, a recent review of public records shows that Pombo and his family could profit handsomely from the highway proposals, even if no freeways are ever built. The Pombo clan owns more than 1,500 acres of land near the two new freeways and the value of its property will likely skyrocket because of the congressman's actions -- and may already have.

It neither violates House ethics rules nor breaks the law for a congressman to enrich himself or his family through his official actions -- as long as those actions also benefit a significant number of other people. Clearly, Pombo could argue that two new freeways would benefit East Bay commuters. But as ethics expert Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies put it: "The real question is: 'Should he be doing this?'"

Pombo's misshapen congressional district snakes through four counties and includes communities that have little in common. It runs from Lodi south through a section of Stockton; east to rural Escalon; then back west to Tracy; north to Brentwood and Byron; east to Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon and Danville but not Livermore; and then south all the way to Gilroy.

When residents of Pleasanton, Dublin, and the San Ramon Valley learned in 2001 that they had been annexed into Pombo's district, many were dumbfounded. They didn't know who he was, let alone that he was an unflinching member of the radical right. For years they had been represented by Ellen Tauscher, a moderate Democrat whose fiscal conservatism and social liberalism seemed to perfectly match their own.

"The San Ramon Valley is a pretty moderate place," said Kish Rajan, a San Ramon Valley resident who became active in a bipartisan effort to defeat Pombo. "If you're a Democrat, you tend to be moderate, and if you're a Republican, you tend to be moderate. But look at Pombo -- his views tend to be very extreme, right-wing positions."

Tauscher blamed the redistricting on former Democratic state Senator John Burton of San Francisco. Redistricting, including congressional districts, is handled every ten years by the state Legislature, and Tauscher believed Burton, who was president of the Senate in 2001, was punishing her for not supporting his longtime ally, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, in her bid to become House minority leader.

Other political observers believed the redistricting had more to do with embattled Modesto Congressman Gary Condit, who was under intense media scrutiny following the disappearance of his intern Chandra Levy. They believed the Democrats were so worried that Condit's troubles could result in the party losing his 18th Congressional district that they carved out southern Stockton, a Democratic stronghold in Pombo's district, and put it in the 18th. To make up for losing Stockton, Pombo was given parts of Tauscher's district.

The Democrats may have saved Condit's district from going Republican, but they only made Pombo stronger. The loss of thirty thousand Democratic voters in San Joaquin County tilted his district farther to the right. Just before the 2001 changes, Pombo's district was 45.1 percent Democrat and 42.5 percent Republican. But as of February 2005, the most recent data available from the California Secretary of State, it was 37.0 percent Democrat and 44.6 percent Republican.

Pombo is indeed beloved by the far right. The pro-gun Safari Club International takes him on junkets nearly every year, and social conservatives know they can count on him. "He continuously scores 100 percent," said Tom McClusky, director of governmental affairs of the Family Research Council, a leading "family values" lobbying group. "He's one of the most reliable social conservative voters." Pombo routinely earns a perfect or near-perfect score from a range of other right-wing groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union. It's no wonder. He wants to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, outlaw abortion, ban same-sex marriage, and kill the Endangered Species Act.

In the 2002 election, stunned East Bay residents attempted to rally behind Elaine Shaw, a Democratic attorney from Danville. But Pombo outspent her by a two-to-one margin and trounced her by twenty percentage points. In 2004, Pombo appeared so unbeatable that few Democrats dared face him. In the end, Jerry McNerney, a Democratic write-in with zero political experience, took up the mantle against Pombo and lost 61 percent to 39 percent. Pombo outspent him by nearly seven to one.

Pombo's fund-raising prowess is so formidable that he often raises more money than he needs. Last year, he was able to donate $147,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which typically funnels such excess funds to tighter House races around the country. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, Pombo has raised more than $5.4 million and spent nearly $5.1 million in his congressional career. His biggest benefactor by far has been agribusiness, including ranchers, dairy farmers, and other farming interests, who have pumped nearly $1.1 million into his coffers.

In the two years since Pombo took control of the House Resources Committee, donations from oil and gas interests, along with Native American tribes, have skyrocketed. In 2003 and 2004, he hauled in $151,552 from energy and natural-resources companies, which took over as his top contributors, according to an analysis by Four of his ten largest individual or political action committee donors, meanwhile, were Native American tribes.

The chairmanship of the Resources Committee also could help Pombo advance his legislative agenda, which sputtered under the Clinton Administration. Gutting and then killing the Endangered Species Act remains his top priority. Earlier this year, he circulated draft legislation that would eliminate the act completely in ten years. "It's pretty clear that he's using his chair of the Resources Committee to serve his own agenda," said Burt Semcer, the Sierra Club's Washington, DC, representative.

Earlier this year, Pombo solidified his relationship with the Republican majority leader to whom he owes his chairmanship. In January, Pombo and fellow Central Valley Republican John Doolittle worked behind the scenes with other House Republican leaders to alter House Ethics Committee rules in order to protect DeLay from further investigation by the Ethics Committee, which already had admonished him. DeLay has been under scrutiny for receiving gifts and travel from Jack Abramoff, a former powerhouse Washington lobbyist for Native American tribes. Abramoff, who was indicted by a Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury on fraud charges in early August, also has donated $7,000 to Pombo's political action committee -- RICH PAC.

But helping the powerful DeLay with his ethics problems may turn out to have been a savvy move for Pombo, who recently has had several of his own.

During his early years on Capitol Hill, Pombo added to his Western persona by developing a reputation for telling tall tales. In his 1996 book with conservative writer Joseph Farah, This Land Is Our Land: How to End the War on Private Property, Pombo told an apparently fanciful tale about how he got into politics, implying that a family run-in with the East Bay Regional Park District in the 1980s first prompted him to run for office. Agency spokesmen later said Pombo wasn't telling the truth. He had alleged that the park district sought "an abandoned railroad right-of-way as a recreational trail through the property of two dozen local ranchers and that of my family." He also complained that the park district had sought to block construction of homes to protect the "viewshed" of the trails "without any compensation whatsoever." Park district spokesmen later pointed out that the district had no interest in the Pombos' Altamont property because it was beyond the district's boundaries at the time, and that it was actually seeking railroad right-of-ways in Niles Canyon, at least twenty miles away.

Protecting the value of his family's property has been a recurrent theme for Pombo. In 1994, he told a Senate committee that his family ranch had been devalued after it was declared a critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox. When questioned, he and his staff later acknowledged that the claim was untrue, but said the problem still applied to other Central Valley ranchers. But that wasn't true either. At the time, the federal government had yet to declare any critical habitat for the fox.

On more than one occasion, Pombo also has used government resources for political or personal ends. Just weeks before the November 2004 presidential election, Pombo directed his Resources Committee staff to mail out 166,000 copies of a two-page color leaflet that touted President Bush and the Resources Committee for working to "ensure that snowmobilers have access to our National Parks and recreation areas." The mailers went to snowmobile owners in the swing states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also derided a Clinton-era ban of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which the Bush administration had overturned. The mailers cost $68,081 in federal funds.

Spending taxpayer dollars on partisan political ads is illegal, but Pombo's staff maintained that the mailers were merely informing citizens about Resources Committee work and were not political. Democrats argued otherwise, and complaints were filed against Pombo with the commission that oversees congressional mail privileges. "The Republicans just dismissed it, even though it violates the law about not using public resources for political purposes," said Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, who remains unhappy about how the Republican majority handled the issue. Before the complaints were dismissed, however, Democrats were able to install specific rules that prohibit such leaflets in the future by limiting committee mailing expenditures to $5,000.

At almost precisely the same time that the snowmobile leaflets went out, Pombo's aides began a lobbying campaign that stood to benefit his parents. For years, environmentalists have been upset at the wind-power industry for doing nothing about the thousands of birds killed annually by the wind turbines that dot the Altamont Pass. A report last year from the California Energy Commission estimated that the number of birds shredded or electrocuted by wind turbines in the Altamont could be as high as 4,700 a year, and biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to agree that something needed to be done.

But early last October, Pombo's Resources Committee staff sought to silence Fish and Wildlife officials. They wrote a letter to Gale A. Norton, head of the US Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife, and then met with officials to complain that the needs of wind-power companies had been overlooked, according to a Los Angeles Times story in April of this year. "After that meeting, the Fish and Wildlife Service was removed -- they were no longer involved," said Richard Wiebe, a San Francisco attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. The center last year sued the wind-power companies to compensate the state of California for the bird losses in the Altamont.

The Times also revealed that Pombo and his staff had not disclosed that his parents, Ralph and Onita, own a 289-acre ranch in the Altamont that they lease to wind-power companies and from which they receive royalties of more than $100,000 annually. Pombo denied that he was trying to make money for his parents by lobbying, arguing that he has been a wind-power supporter for years. He also told the newspaper that he never saw the letter to Norton, even though it bore his signature.

But Pombo failed to disclose something else that the Times article did not reveal. He personally could have profited from the wind-power contracts. A review of public records shows that Pombo has previously benefited from his parents' financial gains and that he maintains substantial monetary ties with them and his brothers.

In May 2001, after a series of lucrative real-estate transactions, Pombo's parents gave him and his four brothers a 10.4 percent stake each in their 205-acre ranch just outside Tracy, according to deed records. His parents kept the remaining stake for themselves. According to property records and the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters, the congressman and his wife and children, his parents, and three of his brothers -- Ralph Jr., Rodger, and Raymond -- all live in separate homes on the ranch.

The property, rolling hills of treeless grasslands and cattle, sits right next to Interstate 580, a few miles north of the I-5 junction. The land is registered simultaneously in the name of a limited liability company, Pombo Ranch Estates, which Pombo's father listed with the secretary of state's office as a real-estate investment venture in April 2001. On his federal financial disclosure statements, Richard Pombo has reported himself as a partner of Pombo Ranch Estates since 2002, and lists the value of his interest in the company as being between $250,001 and $500,000. Federal law does not require him to be more specific.

The congressman and his father and at least two brothers, Rodger and Raymond, also are partners in R. Pombo Ranch II, a cattle ranching and feedlot business whose official address is on the same acreage. Richard Pombo has listed himself as a partner in the business since at least 1995. His 2004 financial statement put the value of his interest is between $100,001 and $250,000. Beyond his House salary, the money he makes from these two partnerships is the only income he reports on his federal disclosure forms.

But that's not the only money his family makes from him. Federal campaign finance statements reveal that both his wife, Annette, and his youngest brother, Randall, have collected nearly $500,000 in total from Pombo's campaign accounts since the beginning of 2001. The congressman has paid his wife $186,704 and Randall $311,489 in that time. Pombo reported that about one-fifth of the total was reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. The balance was for "bookkeeping," "fund-raising," "consulting," and "clerical" work.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy originally pledged to schedule an interview with the congressman for this story, but then neither he, Pombo, nor Pombo's staff responded to any of more than a half-dozen subsequent phone and e-mail requests.

Tracy is proud of its native son, and inside City Hall, four of the five councilmembers, including Mayor Bilbrey, are Republicans who align themselves with him. Recently, however, things have not gone exactly as planned in Pombo Country. The city's rapid expansion -- from 18,428 in 1980 to about 80,000 today -- also changed its political mix, luring some Democrats who want to stop all that growth. They've been joined by old-timers finally fed up with all the traffic and air pollution the new commuters have caused. Today, Tracy has some of Northern California's worst traffic; just try driving to Yosemite on a hot Friday afternoon.

In 2000, Tracy residents rose up, defied their political leaders, and approved a slow-growth measure. "From 1991 to 2000, we built fifteen thousand units of housing in this town; we were operating under unlimited growth," said Mark Connolly, a Tracy attorney and author of the slow-growth measure. "Citizens -- after a while -- they realized they were sold a bill of goods. With all that growth, the roads didn't get any better and the schools became overcrowded."

The Tracy power structure opposed the measure and Connolly believes it will attempt to overturn it. But the pro-growth forces still have a major problem -- traffic, especially through the Altamont Pass. The morning and afternoon commutes to and from the East Bay are horrendous, choked with more than 140,000 cars and big rigs a day.

Connolly and Irene Sundberg, the lone Democrat on the Tracy City Council, both support a BART extension to Tracy or improvements to the Altamont Commuter Express train. A consortium of business leaders and labor groups, meanwhile, is working overtime to convince the state to widen I-205, which creates a bottleneck when motorists come off the Altamont and have to squeeze from eight lanes down to four. The bottleneck clogs traffic every weekday morning and afternoon.

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.

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.

In fact, just knowing that the government is studying a new freeway route likely is enough to raise property values -- regardless of whether Pombo's Folly actually is built.