Caltrans Pulls Plug On High Desert Corridor Freeway Effort

The California Department of Transportation rather quietly last month pulled the plug on the long-in-the-works plans for the 63-mile Desert Corridor Freeway that was to link California State Route 14 in Palmdale and State Route 18 in Apple Valley.
Once touted as an energetic multimodal transportation initiative which was to involve a planned train line built into the freeway design as well as a bike route and renewable energy transmission lines, the $8 billion project was nixed as the consequence of a court settlement brought by environmental groups against the State of California and the California Department of Transportation.
As early as the 1930s, there was serous discussion of building a major highway linking northern Los Angeles County to the Victor Valley, running through the vast virtually undeveloped expanse of the west Mojave Desert. But available capital, resources and energy during that and the subsequent era was devoted, indeed monopolized, by crucial transportation needs in the much more heavily populated and more rapidly growing areas south of the San Gabriel Mountains, resulting in the construction of the 10, 60 and 210 freeways as the Southland’s primary east-west connections between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
By the 1970s, the concept of having an east-west freeway north of the San Gabriel Mountains was revived in earnest, though no realistic funding source for it was available. The idea grew increasingly attractive as population growth in the Antelope Valley on the far west side of the Mojave and in the communities of Oak Hills, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville and Adelanto began to accelerate in 1980s, 1990s and into the Third Millennium.
Almost two decades ago, traffic jams down the 15 Freeway from the Victor Valley in the morning and back up the 15 to 4,190-foot elevation Cajon Summit in the late afternoon/early evening became a weekday reality. For the more intrepid of those impatient with taking that route to and from the Inland Empire or beyond to Orange County and the Los Angeles megalopolis, there was the back route, State Highway 138, the Pearblossom Highway, that generally traces the northern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains lying to the south and the western Mojave Desert, which lies off to the north. Though scenic, the mostly two-lane highway is treacherous, and is commonly referred to as “Blood Alley” or “Death’s Highway.” Over the years, hundreds of motorists have lost their lives as the rolling contour of the land and resultant dips in the road create blind spots, which have contributed to legions of head-on accidents that occur when a speeding vehicle running in one direction or the other moves into the oncoming lane of traffic to pass a slower traveler.
In November 2006, the County of Los Angeles and the County of San Bernardino created the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which took as its charter the creation of the High Desert Corridor, what was then envisioned as a 66-mile stretch of freeway connecting the Los Angeles County communities of Palmdale/Lancaster with the San Bernardino County communities of Victorville, Apple Valley, and Adelanto.
By earlier this decade, with much of the developable land south of the San Gabriel Mountains consumed in the Los Angeles Basin and the price of available undeveloped property in the Inland Empire skyrocketing, both the Antelope Valley and the Victor Valley had transformed into two of the fastest growing regions in the state, prioritizing the means of alleviating the gridlock on the 15, 210, 10 and 60 freeways even further. A study for the High Desert Corridor was initiated in 2010, as conceptually the plan intensified, with discussions centering on what was to initially be an eight-lane freeway, with room for a rail line, referred to as a high speed rail feeder service, along with facilities to convey solar power produced out in the desert to the San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles, along with a bicycling route.
A multi-county, multi-jurisdictional project, it was catalogued as a joint effort between the State of California, Los Angeles County, and San Bernardino County and other involved agencies, with plans of applying local transportation funds toward the project over the course of more than 30 years to achieve it, along with state augmentation funding and the use of federal transportation dollars. Considered to just be at the planning stage, the funding that had been put up by both counties and Caltrans extended only to undertaking the review process.
In 2014, the California Department of Transportation, known as  Caltrans, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and San Bernardino County’s transportation agency, then known as San Bernardino Associated Governments, completed a draft environmental impact statement/report for the High Desert Corridor looking at five functional alternatives and four physical variations in the completion of the corridor, extending to alignments relating to avoiding or involving residential displacements in the Lake Los Angeles area and existing agricultural uses, as well as avoiding or involving impacts to several water wells supplying water to local communities in the environs of Adelanto.
At the same time, militation against the reliance on individual vehicles and fossil fuel-based transportation has been intensifying at all levels in the United States, and most especially in California, where mandates toward the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions thought to be responsible for global warming have been codified. It was posited that the addition of freeways ran counter to the goal of seeking to convince people to drive less. Simultaneously, Los Angeles County Metro officials are working to usher commuters in the Southland toward using rail travel alternatives, including MetroLInk, light rail options such as the Gold Line and a subway system. In this way, some planners, including transportation officials whose support of the High Desert Corridor was deemed crucial to the advance of the project, appeared to be leaning against proceeding with it.
Nevertheless, the forces working toward finding some way to reduce the worsening traffic situation in Southern California appeared poised to overcome whatever opposition might be manifesting based upon the prospect of some projected and unproven future technologies.
L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich pushed to have some $170 million in Los Angeles County  Metro’s Measure M sales tax intended to pay for transportation projects earmarked for right-of-way acquisition for the pathway of the corridor, and another $1.8 billion set aside to be used for construction.
In 2016, the environmentalist organization Climate Resolve, the Endangered Habitats League, Dr. Tom Williams and Bryan Baker, represented by attorneys Mitchell Tsai and James Birkelund, filed a lawsuit challenging the High Desert Corridor under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Quality Act.
In the midst of that legal challenge, the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors in September 2017, at the instigation of First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, through whose First District the High Desert Corridor was supposed to run, hired Ryan MacEachron, who had formerly been mayor and city councilman in Victorville, to serve as the coordinator of the High Desert Corridor Project. McEachron had been voted out of office by Victorville’s voters some ten months previously. As the High Desert Corridor project coordinator, MacEachron was provided with $98,363 in total compensation over the next nine months until the end of fiscal year 2017-18 on June 30, 2018, consisting of $60,378 in salary and $37,985 in benefits. San Bernardino County officials justified his hiring by stating that MacEachron had proven credentials in terms of dealing with traffic issues in general and an understanding of the High Desert’s road system. Previously, in June 2015, McEachron had been elected president of San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG), the county’s transportation agency, which has since been reformed and renamed the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority. Known by its new acronym, SBCTA, it is overseen by a board consisting of one representative from each of the county’s 24 cities, either a mayor or council member, as well as each of the county’s five supervisors. The agency provides financial support toward and coordinates freeway construction projects, regional and local road improvements, train and bus transportation, railroad crossings, call boxes, ridesharing, congestion management efforts and long-term planning studies in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation, the county government, local municipalities and the regional public transportation agencies that offer bus and shuttle services, Omnitrans, Mountain Transit, Victor Valley Transit Authority and the Morongo Basin Transit Authority. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority administers Measure I funds, revenue from San Bernardino County’s half-cent transportation sales tax first passed in 1989 and extended by voters in 2004 to run through 2040. Despite his position as the political head of the county transportation agency, MacEachron had no nuts-and-bolts experience in transporation issues and no real technical expertise with regard to such matters, having professionally been engaged as an insurance agent for most of his life.
Of note was that the two county officials who at that time would have normally played crucial roles in the hiring of county employees, Mark DeBoer in the human resources division and deputy county counsel Cynthia O’Neill, were essentially bypassed with regard to MacEachron’s hiring while the county’s de facto top in-house political operative, county governmental and legislative affairs director Josh Candelaria, who is directly answerable to the board of supervisors, made the evaluation of McEachron at Lovingood’s behest. Candelaria made the recommendation to hire him.
A large cross section of the public and many individuals involved in government throughout Southern California perceived MacEachron’s hiring to be a gross act of political patronage. Indeed, MacEachron’s placement in the position disturbed many Los Angeles County officials, who saw in San Bernardino County’s willingness to install what they considered a political hack into a position requiring extensive technical expertise and knowledge a demonstration that San Bernardino County was willing to misuse Los Angeles County’s larger financial resources.
Last month, at its September 4 meeting, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s executive director, Ray Wolfe, citing a $16 million cost overrun, pushing from $80 million to $96 million the price on a collective effort to extend the Gold Line light rail system from Claremont to Montclair, indicated San Bernardino County will discontinue its participation in the project. The Gold Line, with an overall $2.1 billion budget, is a rail system running through the foothill communities along the southern side of the San Gabriel Mountains.
For Los Angeles County transportation officials, while projects such as the Gold Line and the High Desert Corridor represent a benefit to them and their constituents, they perceive those projects to be of relatively greater benefit to east-lying San Bernardino County and its residents. Out of a spirit of cooperation, Los Angeles County officials were willing to shoulder a greater degree of the cost of both of those projects. Now, however, with San Bernardino County balking at participating in the Gold Line extension and signals that the High Desert Corridor is being used to provide sinecures for top ranking San Bernardino County officials’ cronies and political associates, Los Angeles County officials have come to see their San Bernardino County counterparts as unreliable partners in the effort to mitigate regional transportation challenges, and are dismayed and disenchanted at the degree to which San Bernardino County’s politicians are willing to presume upon the western county’s goodwill and generosity.
With the Climate Resolve/the Endangered Habitats League/Williams and Baker lawsuit having survived efforts to have it dismissed, with the court finding that that the 2014 environmental impact report was insufficient with regards to biological and greenhouse gas impacts, Los Angeles County signaled to Caltrans that it was not willing, at this time, to go to the mat to keep the project on track. Caltrans, as the lead defendant in the case, simply gave up the ghost as opposed to appealing that ruling or engaging in what in the scheme of things would have been a relatively inexpensive revisiting of the environmental study, and taking on and completing a supplemental environmental impact report. Rather, the agency agreed to a settlement agreement to bring to a stop any further efforts toward pursuing the freeway component of the project, including not acquiring land for the freeway right-of-way until and unless a supplemental environmental impact report is completed at some subsequent point. Under the agreement, the light rail and bike aspects of the planning process, and even acquisition process, can proceed.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply