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Caltrans’ Olancha/Cartago decision a balancing act

September 16, 2011

Tom Hallenbeck (r) meets with project staff to choose a preferred alternative for the Olancha/Cartago Four-Lane Project. Hallenbeck said he chose to combine two designs for the project to enhance safety and protect private property. Photo courtesy Caltrans

Caltrans’ decision to construct a bypass around two Southern Inyo communities not only doesn’t disregard the public’s wishes, as alleged, but was made with the public’s best interests in mind, according to the agency.
District 9 officials said this week that public input was carefully considered and local groups were heavily involved in the process used to select a preferred route for the Olancha/Cartago Four-Lane Project.
The process began in 2010 when Caltrans completed a draft environmental document and draft project report that included four preliminary project designs and one “no -build” alternative.
That year, Caltrans presented the alternatives in public meetings in Olancha and with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors in Independence.
The alternatives were also presented to the Inyo County Local Transportation Commission, the California Highway Patrol, Bureau of Land Management and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
According to Project Manager Cedrik Zemitis, public opinion on the proposed alternatives ran the gamut, with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and some Olancha and Cartago residents saying they preferred an alternative that would keep the highway running along its existing course.
Some business owners and residents in Olancha opposed that alternative, as the four-lane project would require roadside property owners to relinquish portions of their property to make way for the highway.
Others expressed concerns about safety and high-speed travel through the communities and said they supported an alternative that would bypass the communities.
Without a consensus from the public on which alternative to move forward with, Zemitis said Caltrans, working with the Local Transportation Commission, CHP, BLM, LADWP and other interested groups (the Inyo County Board of Supervisors declined to participate in the meetings, saying their preferred alternative was made clear at its meeting with Caltrans), developed a point system that gave project planners clear insight into how best to proceed.
On Feb. 25, 2011, the Project Development Team came up with five deciding factors for the project. From most important to least important, the factors were: safety, local public concerns, cost, interregional/regional public concerns and natural and physical environments.
Over three meetings that totaled more than 16 hours of discussion and review of public comments, the Project Development Team recommended that Caltrans proceed with Alternative 3, a divided highway passing west of Olancha adjacent to the existing highway through Cartago.
That recommendation, along with the point system and records of how the collaborative development team scored each alternative, was handed over to Caltrans District 9 Director Tom Hallenbeck in April 2011.
“After reviewing the environmental documents and other project documents, public comments, survey results and comments, attending public meetings and considering the team’s analysis and recommendation on June 29, 2011, District Director Hallenbeck selected a combination of Alternative 3 and Alternative 4 as the preferred alternative,” a press release supplied by Zemitis states.
Hallenbeck “liked the recommendation, but he had some concerns,” Zemitis said. “Alternative 3 cut through some property and displaced some residents in the Fall Road area and created some noise impacts.”
In order to avoid those impacts, Hallenbeck decided to combine Alternative 3 with the southernmost portion of Alternative 4, which will not require Caltrans to use private property for the highway project.
“The preferred alternative has the same benefits, but misses the homes,” Caltrans Transportation Engineer Ron Chegwidden said.
Though Caltrans selected an alternative that would bypass Olancha and parts of Cartago, Zemitis said the road department is not ignoring concerns from residents that the bypass will be detrimental to local businesses that rely on through traffic.
Zemitis and Chegwidden said Caltrans plans to convert the existing stretch of U.S. 395 from State Route 190 south to where the bypass begins into an extended stretch of S.R. 190.
According to Zemitis, converting the abandoned stretch of U.S. 395 to S.R. 190 will ensure through traffic traveling to Death Valley continues to pass by businesses in Olancha.
For Cartago, Chegwidden said Caltrans is working with Inyo County to determine if it is willing to take over maintenance of the stretch of U.S. 395 that will be abandoned so it can be used as a frontage road, giving Cartago residents access to Olancha without having to take the bypass, while still being able to reduce travel speed through those towns.
Chegwidden said that those ideas will be finalized in the planning stages, after the final Environmental Impact Report is complete.

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