Both sides of a lawsuit challenging the project's initial environmental study agreed to set aside the argument until agencies produce the next set of environmental documents, in three or four years.
Also, leaders have scheduled more public meetings next month to gather input on the controversial freeway plan north of Modesto.
The lawsuit, brought in May by Protect our Agricultural Legacy, asked a judge to force the California Department of Transportation to do a better job studying impacts of a new freeway in Stanislaus County. The North County Corridor would link Highway 99 near Salida to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, passing north of Modesto and south of Riverbank and Oakdale.
The lawsuit challenged an environmental report on the expressway's route adoption process. Leaders aren't expected to pinpoint an actual alignment for years, but they have identified a half-mile-wide swath from which the ultimate path would be chosen.
A recent "tolling agreement" makes dormant the lawsuit because the agencies intend to prepare more in-depth environmental studies, to be circulated in late 2013. If adopted by state leaders in 2014, Protect our Agricultural Legacy would be free to challenge them or reinstate this year's lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the agencies agreed not to base new documents on the report in question but may use technical studies, according to the deal.
"We don't want them to use this (environmental impact report) for any purpose, and they agreed to that," said Santa Rosa attorney Rose Zoia, representing Protect our Agricultural Legacy. She specializes in environmental law and previously represented Protect Our Water, a similarly loose-knit group that once challenged Diablo Grande in the Coast Range west of Patterson.
Construction on the expressway's stretch east of McHenry Avenue could begin around 2025 if officials secure funding.
Also, Caltrans says it will hold public meetings on the project Sept. 8 in the Oakdale Community Center, 110 S. Second Ave., and Sept. 13 at the Salida library, 4835 Sisk Road. Both meetings will run from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
In related news, the North County Corridor Transportation Expressway Authority on Wednesday will review a risk management plan. The authority is composed of representatives from the county, Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale and is scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. in the third-floor boardroom of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, 1111 I St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.