Planned highway project to bypass town along 395 corridor
Olancha and Cartago residents had a bone to pick with Caltrans at Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting in Independence.
Caltrans recently closed the public comment period for a new project to convert 12.6 miles of existing U.S. Highway 395 from a 2-lane to 4-lane highway. The 2-lane stretch of road currently passes through Olancha and Cartago in Inyo County.
Caltrans provided several alternative proposals to residents of both communities: Alternative 1 proposed expanding the existing stretch of road, and was most popular with residents, although according to a Caltrans study, only 25% of residents were in favor of any highway expansion. Other alternatives proposed using sections of the existing road and bypassing others west of Olancha or Cartago.
Scott Palomar, an Olancha-Cartago property owner, said that residents had favored Alternative 1 because it had “the fewest unknowns that could negatively impact the community and environment.” However, Caltrans chose to recommend Alternative 3, which proposed a “controlled access divided expressway passing west of Olancha and adjacent to the existing highway through Cartago.” But Caltrans District 9 Director Tom Hallenbeck rejected this alternative and constructed a new approach that combines Alternatives 3 and 4, Palomar said.
The new combined proposal will swing west of Olancha and pass directly through Cartago. The section of 395 bypassed at Olancha will become a frontage road connected via access points to the new alignment.
“It’s difficult to comprehend the logic of their decision,” Palomar said. “Why create a new 4-lane highway rather than widening the 2-lane highway?” Palomar and other residents expressed frustration that, after a $5 million feasibility study to come up with the alternatives, Caltrans had created an entirely new plan after closing the public hearing process. “Once again a government agency is doing what it wants whether the people like it or not,” Olancha resident Susan Patton said. Jeffrey Bowle added that the new project will cost $30 to $40 million more than Alternatives 1 or 3.
“Those of us in the community feel like Caltrans is literally running us over,” said one resident.
The Board was sympathetic to these concerns, but clarified it had no power to directly affect Caltrans’ decision. “My recommendation is that this Board write a letter to Caltrans encouraging a community meeting to hear the concerns voiced today,” said Chair Susan Cash.
Caltrans 4-Lane Project Manager Cedric Zemitis said in a phone interview after the meeting that Caltrans “may be looking for public input on access and circulation issues, meaning where access points will be.” He noted that residents had expressed concern about getting to and from their homes, and had also wondered how Crystal Geyser trucks would access the new alignment.
Zemitis maintained that the new plan is the best of all options, and avoids some of the drawbacks of Caltrans-recommended Alternative 3, which would have required residential relocation. However, Olancha residents and business owners are understandably concerned that the bypass will threaten the survival of their town.
Though Caltrans won’t hold any further hearings, Zemitis said, “We’re always willing to listen and respond to comments and concerns.” Currently the project is in the environmental phase, and expects to begin Design and Right-of-Way in 2013. Construction will begin in 2016-2017.