RIALTO - There are big hopes for Pepper Avenue now that the 210 Freeway is open.

A team of developers is putting together two plans for mixed-use development on both sides of the 210.

They would be part of the city's effort to give Rialto a boost by building along the 210 corridor.

But there's a big problem: Pepper doesn't hit the 210, and it could be years before it does.

That's because Rialto has run into setback after setback trying to extend the street less than a half mile north to the 210. The problems range from increasing costs, to the loss of federal money for the project, to endangered little critters like the San Bernardino kangaroo rat.

On top of those problems, the city doesn't own all the land it would need to extend the road, including property where an 82-year-old former mayor has lived for 50 years.

"It's not going to be a cheap proposition," said Darren Kettle, director of freeway construction for San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county transportation planning agency.

Now, developers have offered to extend the road themselves, as long as the city pays part of the cost.

Pepper was supposed to connect to the 210 when the freeway opened, but progress halted as the cost of extending the road kept rising. The latest estimate put the cost at more than $4million - probably closer to $5million.

If Rialto can't get it built by November 2009, it will have to pay Sanbag up to $3million for a bridge the agency built so the 210 could accommodate Pepper.

Pepper would have to run through a wash that is a tributary to Lytle Creek, but the engineering to deal with that landscape is simple compared with the environmental costs, Kettle said.

Whoever builds the Pepper extension - whether it's the city or developers - would have to buy land for endangered species in the area at a rough cost of about $1million, Kettle said. The species could include the San Bernardino kangaroo rat, the woolly-star, a plant, and the gnatcatcher, a small bird.

Rialto was originally supposed to pay for the Pepper extension with $826,000 from the federal government. Another $240,000 would have come from Colton, San Bernardino, the county and Rialto. As costs went up and the project became more complicated, the federal money was withdrawn in 2003.

Under the new proposal from developers, they would extend Pepper, but Rialto would contribute $2.5million or more. The total cost could be $4million plus the cost of the habitat for the endangered species, said Bruce Cash, president and CEO of United Strategies Inc., the firm that put together the development team.

"There's a huge environmental aspect to it," he said.

Cash said he is confident the road will be built before the November 2009 deadline and that the design will be done in the next few months.

If the developers don't end up extending Pepper, the city will, said Robb Steel, Rialto's economic development director.

"Pepper Avenue is going through - no doubt," said Rialto's development services director, Mike Story.

Assuming all goes well and Pepper does make it to the 210 on time, Sanbag will pay for the ramps to the freeway and will extend Pepper from the 210 to Highland Avenue.

At a community meeting in June about an early version of the proposal for Pepper south of the 210, most of the approximately 120 people who showed up complained about the plan and the traffic and crime increases that could accompany extending Pepper for development.

"What is it going to accomplish for the city?" former Mayor Bob Hughbanks, 82, said on Monday when asked about extending Pepper.

Talk of extending the road is not new, said Hughbanks, who was mayor in the 1960s. He remembers people talking about the idea as early as 1958.

"The cost of it was just prohibitive," he said outside his home, where Pepper hits the property he bought in 1958 when there were only orange groves nearby.

"I was up here before anybody built anything," he said.

It's no mystery why it would cost so much. Almost immediately after Pepper ends, there's a steep dropoff into an uneven wash.

There's a fire in the wash almost every year, and sometimes it floods, making it difficult to build on, Hughbanks said. It's also full of the little kangaroo rats, which he said his kids used to catch and make pets out of, even putting one on a hamster wheel.

When Hughbanks bought the property, it was farm lot with a boundary that ends somewhere in the middle of Pepper and goes into the wash. He's not sure what the exact boundaries are, but he said no one has contacted him or his neighbors to buy property for the extension. He would be willing to sell though, he said.

Chances are good Pepper will be extended soon, Kettle said.

"If we were skeptical, we probably wouldn't have proceeded with the bridge."

Contact writer Jason Pesick at (909) 386-3861 or via e-mail at jason.pesick@sbsun.com.