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Caltrans' Mono Mistake

July 08, 2002

Californians fought for years to keep the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from draining strange and spectacular Mono Lake. They shouldn't have to go to war again to save a small but critical slice of Mono's shore from another public agency, Caltrans.

This is another story of how a good idea got wished into a really bad one. Since 1992, people living in the Eastern Sierra have sought to get the California Department of Transportation to straighten one unsafe curve on U.S. 395 alongside Mono Lake, just north of the town of Lee Vining. They were hoping for a scenic turnout, a bicycle lane and a better turnoff to a local road.

Somehow that request has bloated into a $13-million project to widen and straighten 2.9 miles of U.S. 395 and add 8-foot-wide shoulders. There still would be only two lanes. The project would boost the safe speed slightly, from 53 mph to 62 mph, even though the accident rate is relatively low and southbound drivers don't need more speed as they approach the town.

Here's the kicker: The road now runs as close as 250 feet to the lake's fragile shore, and as the water is gradually restored to its historical level of 6,392 feet above sea level it will come within 100 feet of even the existing highway.

The proposed project would move the highway into wetlands adjoining the shoreline. Caltrans claims it would wipe out only 1.5 acres, a figure that scientists call laughably low, according to the Mono Lake Committee. Whatever the figure, the state has a long-standing order to restore wetlands to make up for what was lost over the years as Los Angeles sucked dry the streams feeding the lake.

The regional water quality control board opposes the widening, and the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Fish and Game and other agencies have raised concerns.

If there's not an urgent safety problem and motorists wouldn't gain much in terms of safe speed, what's the point?

With jagged Sierra peaks on one side and sweeping high chaparral on the other, this stretch of U.S. 395 is one of the most beautiful drives in the state. It cuts through the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, created to protect the area's natural resources. So the project seems to be in blatant violation of Caltrans' own new policy of "context-sensitive solutions," which pledges to balance transportation goals with community, aesthetic, historical and environmental values.

Caltrans will complete a draft environmental impact report before it settles on a design. The notion of any overgrown project should be rejected. Then Caltrans could get back to doing the small job that the people of Mono County asked for in 1992.

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