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A safer community, but with no commerce?

September 13, 2011

Local reaction to a Caltrans Highway Project that would bypass parts of Olancha/Cartago has been mixed, with some saying the project will make the communities safer and others claiming a bypass will kill local businesses that rely on through-traffic.
One southern Inyo County property owner is speaking out against a proposed highway project, claiming that Caltrans ignored the wishes of citizens and the local government.
Caltrans District 9 Director Tom Hallenbeck announced in July that the preferred alternative for the Olancha/Cartago four-lane project is a combination of two of the six alternatives that were presented to residents and county leaders.
The proposed highway project would have U.S. 395 bypassing much of Olancha and Cartago, creating what Caltrans calls a safer highway. As proposed, the new stretch of highway would bypass the south end of town and travel through the north end.
“It is my assertion, and of other property owners in Olancha/Cartago, that Caltrans is making decisions about the Olancha/Cartago Four-Lane project that disregard the sentiments and well-being of the affected communities,” Olancha property owner Scott Palamar said in a letter to Caltrans.
During a public meeting last year, Palamar and a handful of Southern Inyo residents, along with the Board of Supervisors, recommended Caltrans opt for a project alternative that would not remove U.S. 395 traffic from town and the doorsteps of local businesses.
The combined alternative that was selected is a controlled access divided expressway that would begin south of Olancha and pass west of the community and the Los Angeles Aqueduct as outlined in Alternative 4. Once the alignment crosses Olancha Creek, the preferred alternative would then cross the aqueduct and continue north through Cartago along the existing highway to meet up with the previously constructed Ash Creek Four Lane Project, as outlined in another alternative.
On the other side of the debate is Mark Lacey, a prominent rancher and lessee in the Olancha area, who says he supports the bypass, which will provide enhanced safety for his ranch employees who regularly move cattle across U.S. 395 to different grazing opportunities.
“This is the third time I’ve worked on this issue since 1990,” Lacey said. “We’re in favor of the bypass … it will improve safety for our employees because we’re constantly going back and forth over the highway moving livestock.”
Lacey also said the new highway project will provide adequate room for his employees to load livestock onto trucks without having to work “right on the highway.”
“We are sorry for the people this is going to impact, but we are in support of the bypass,” he added.
Palamar, on the other
hand, said Caltrans should have been more considerate of the comments it received from local government.
“Caltrans arrived at six alternatives, which were presented to the public and Inyo County government for ‘outside world’ opinions,” Palamar’s letter states. “Despite strong preferences expressed by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, the Local Transportation Board and community members, all of which were in favor of Alternative 1 (widen existing road), Caltrans staff recommended Alternative 3. This path represents a complete bypass of the community’s current consumer business zone in Olancha, and isolates the majority of Cartago from Olancha by returning to the current route (which in itself already bisects the residents
of Cartago).”
Palamar goes on to say that the Inyo County General Plan states that all bypasses should be avoided, which Caltrans ignored.
“Nowhere along the Inyo County U.S. 395 corridor are any communities bypassed,” Palamar said. He goes on to point out that it is “perfectly acceptable” for traffic to slow down to 25 miles per hour through Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop without a bypass.
“Were it not for tourism, the communities of Inyo County could scarcely survive, given the well-known growth limitations imposed by the Federal and City of Los Angeles governments,” Palamar said. “As it is, Owens Valley settlements have been on the decline for decades, and each new change that reduces revenue potential is a huge blow to local commerce.”
Palamar also said Caltrans proposes to use a borrow site at the end of Fall Road and south of Olancha Creek to provide soil and road materials for the project. That location of the borrow pit, he said, “is the most travelled residential feeder road in the greater community, yet, with untold acreage of government land surrounding the project area, Caltrans wants to disturb the neighborhood with years of truck traffic and the accompanying danger, noise, fumes and dust. This cannot stand.”

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