By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer
After announcing three months ago it was dropping plans to reopen the long-closed upper portion of Highway 39, Caltrans is now pursuing plans to legally abandon the highway used by millions to access the Angeles National Forest.
Saying the cost of maintaining 27 miles of winding, mountain highway north of Azusa known as State Route 39 was too high, Caltrans has begun shopping it around to other government agencies.
“Now we are looking with our attorneys into how we can abandon this responsibility,” said Ronald Kosinski, deputy district director for environmental planning in District 7, which includes Los Angeles County.
“It is of minimal value to the state of California to keep pouring money into it (Highway 39),” Kosinski said.
The routine cost of maintaining the existing highway is $1.6 million per year, he said.
Kosinski said Caltrans met on Dec. 16 with the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Fish and Game to discuss different options.
“The county says they don’t believe they can operate it. We’ve also talked to the Forest Service,” he said.
Queries sent from this newspaper to these agencies were met with quick responses.
“We’ve received no formal notification of this idea from Caltrans management, so we cannot comment on it,” said John D. Wagner, assistant public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
Michael Cano, transportation aide with Supervisor Mike Antonovich,
whose region includes the foothills leading up to the forest and the Antelope Valley, also said neither the supervisor nor anyone at the county had seen or heard any formal request to take over responsibilities for Highway 39.
“There is not a compelling reason for the county to want to assume control of it,” Cano said.
Longtime cabin owner and environmental activist Glen Owens was dumbfounded over what some are calling a Caltrans trial balloon.
“Why would a state agency try to shirk its responsibilities and then think another government agency would take those over?” asked Owens, a Monrovia planning commissioner. “They just can’t pick and choose what to maintain and what not to maintain.”
Access to the forest trails and the wild parts of the San Gabriel River is critical to a plan being considered by the National Park Service to include the forest as a National Recreation Area co-managed by the NPS. That issue may end up in Congress next year.
Some said that Caltrans’ idea to legally abandon responsibility for the highway proves that the NPS needs to step in before things get worse.
“If the state does abandon it, and no one else picks up the maintenance costs, the risk is it (the road) could get shut down,” said John Monsen, environmental consultant and a Tujunga resident.
Kosinski said other parts of Highway 39, in Orange County and through Covina and Azusa, have been or still could be abandoned to those cities. Likewise, cities such as Long Beach, Pico Rivera and Temple City have taken responsibility for State Route 19, also known as Rosemead Boulevard, after the state relinquished responsibilities.
Cities did this for numerous reasons, including adding median projects or for incorporating retail redevelopment. Temple City is planning a new dedicated bikeway for the southern portion of Rosemead Boulevard.
State Route 39 stretches 40 miles from Orange County as Beach Boulevard, through the San Gabriel Valley as Azusa Avenue and into the forest, connecting Southern California residents to thousands of miles of hiking trails, offroad vehicle riding areas and numerous campgrounds. It is also a route for county workers to three key mountain reservoirs.
The road stops at the 40th mile marker at Snow Spring, a steep, rugged region about one mile north of the turnoff to Crystal Lake. Highway 39 once continued to Angeles Crest Highway near Wrightwood, but that has not been the case since 1978, when a major slide wiped out the road. Recently, Azusa businesses, cabin owners and some environmental groups lobbied for repairing the 4.4-mile section. They say having full circulation into Wrightwood and its ski areas, and into the high desert and La Ca ada Flintridge area, will bring more shoppers to the foothill cities of the San Gabriel Valley.
Despite pleas from business owners, cabin owners and at least one member of the state Assembly to reverse itself, Caltrans has dug in its heels and is basically saying it will never complete the 4.4-mile gap project.
“They are backing out of what they said they were going to do,” said Tony Glassman, safety manager at California Amforge Corp. on North Vernon Avenue in Azusa.
Caltrans and the Forest Service completed an Environmental Impact Statement in 2009 for the project. It held public hearings in Azusa. Many thought the money – about $32 million – was in hand.
An article dated October 2008 in a Caltrans in-house newsletter says the project would be started in fall 2010. “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, etc. can keep District 7 from opening up this challenging route,” was the subtitle.
In the article, Caltrans officials said they had plans to rebuild the damaged portion of 39. “`This might seem like a lot of work just to maintain an impassible highway, but it’s an obligation Caltrans must fulfill,”‘ said Damage Restoration Coordinator Bill Varley. “`The district has a long-term commitment to this highway.”‘
But it appears Caltrans had no intention of completing the project. According to the California Transportation Commission, Caltrans never “delivered the project” to the Commission. Meaning, a formal request for the $32 million was never made.
Kosinski said a big portion of Caltrans’ decision not to pursue was based on the possibility the project would hurt or kill the fragile Nelson’s bighorn sheep that live in the area.
The environmental impact statement from 2009 says the sheep are a concern, but not an insurmountable problem.
“Consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is not required as there will be no effect to any species listed as Endangered, Threatened or proposed as Endangered or Threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act with the implementation of the proposed project,” read the report.
However, since the Forest Service considered the sheep a “sensitive species,” the issue was examined in connection with the reopening of the road to Angeles Crest Highway.
The status of the sheep under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) was in question. “After a detailed review of the CESA and the Code, Caltrans understood that the San Gabriel Mountains population of Nelson’s bighorn sheep was not afforded protection under CESA or the Code,” said the Jan. 23, 2009 report signed by Kosinski.
The report stated that Caltrans wanted “concurrence” that the sheep population where the road would be rebuilt met federal exemption criteria “and therefore was not fully protected.”
“The population in the San Gabriel Mountains, a transverse range, is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal or California Endangered Species Act,” the environmental report concluded.
The report said there are about 300 sheep in the area of Highway 39, down from a high of 500-600 in the 1980s. At the project site, biologists estimated about 10 sheep existed.
Kosinski last week said the reopening project was scrapped because the state doesn’t have $32 million to $40million to complete it. He also said completing the road to Angeles Crest Highway “would be bad for the environment” and said the sheep must be protected.
While Monsen agreed with the decision not to reopen the highway at Snow Spring, he was not in agreement with Caltrans abandoning the mountain highway entirely and predicted a wave of outrage at such an idea.
“People here are not too happy about the position we are taking,” said Kosinski, saying there were those even within Caltrans who disagreed with both decisions.
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