In response to public criticism of his choice for four-lanes in the Olancha area and his refusal to hold an immediate public workshop, Caltrans Director Tom Hallenbeck points to environmental law and to what he sees as a realistic assessment of costs.
Business owners and citizens in Olancha have publicly attacked Hallenbeck for his choice of the Preferred Alternative which is a combination of Alternatives 3 and 4, a four-lane bypass of Olancha to the west. Citizens say Caltrans cooked up this new alternative and did not bring it back to the public for discussion.
Hallenbeck points to the Draft Olancha-Cartago Environmental Assessment. That document says it’s okay to combine alternatives after a public review of all of them. Hallenbeck says that the public had many opportunities over many years to comment on all the alternatives, including the two he combined.
The Draft Environmental Document states “In response to public and agency comments and consideration of environmental impacts, portions of the alternatives may be combined to create a preferred alternative that minimizes impacts and maximizes benefits.”
Source: Draft Environmental Document, 1.3 Alternatives, page 10
Hallenbeck said he will do a workshop later but not now when the public comment period has been closed. “There are no new impacts,” he said, “because of a new alternative.”
Citizens against Hallenbeck’s plan say a by-pass will finally kill Olancha and destroy the viewshed and recreation to the west. The Inyo Supervisors took a stand for Alterntive 1, widening the current highway, and so did many citizens. Hallenbeck pointed out that Caltrans has over 300 pages of comments on the plan.
Citizens have alleged that the by-pass plan will cost as much as $60 million more than widening the current stretch of 395. Hallenbeck said it’s too early to pin down exact costs, but he gave a rough estimate that the by-pass might cost $16 million more.
When asked why Caltrans would support a more expensive alternative, Hallenbeck said, “I can’t comment on that. We’re in the environmental phase.” He said public comment is officially closed and if he discussed matters further, public comment “could be perceived to be open. I know it’s frustrating,” said Hallenbeck, “but this is environmental law.” He said that the final environmental document should be out in mid-2013.