Proposed animal path over freeway resisted

Even in Los Angeles, where celebrities dress their pets in designer clothes, a proposal for a $455,000 animal lane on a bridge over Interstate 405, the San Diego Freeway, has riled residents who say scarce transportation dollars should not be used to help deer and bobcats while humans remain gridlocked in traffic.

The cost could balloon to $1.4 million if environmentalists can persuade the city to extend the wildlife path, which would be part of an overpass for vehicles and pedestrians, beyond the freeway, officials said.

The plan has split residents of wealthy west side enclaves, where the impulse to be environmentally correct is clashing with frustration over the tortoiselike pace on area roadways.

Even some activists who have long supported green causes are ridiculing the idea of a special path on the Skirball Center Drive bridge so coyotes and opossums can commute across the Sepulveda Pass.

"What are they going to do, have Doctor Dolittle standing there directing animals to use the bridge?" scoffed Ernest Frankel, a member of the Mountaingate Community Association, a residents group.

Others, including biologist Paul Edelman of Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, say that if the state is going to expand the 405 as planned, it has an obligation to help wildlife cross open spaces sliced in half by one of the nation's busiest freeways.

"In today's dollars, doing this to improve the quality of open space and solve a serious wildlife issue is a drop in the bucket," Edelman said. "If we want healthy wild animals in Griffith Park and other open spaces, this is a must."

Would the animals use it?

The controversy stems from a plan by the California Department of Transportation to replace the Skirball overpass to accommodate the scheduled widening of the 405 and the addition of a carpool lane through the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Brentwood, Bel-Air and Sherman Oaks.

Concerned that a wider freeway would make it more difficult for wildlife to cross east and west from habitats above the pass, the conservancy won a tentative commitment from Caltrans to make the new bridge, which includes lanes for cars, 5 feet wider than originally planned.

The additional width would help roaming wildlife, according to a preliminary design expected to receive final approval once an environmental review is completed.

Edelman said wildlife surveys show that at any time, about 15 bobcats live between the 405 and Highway 101 freeways, and there are possibly 30 to 35 bobcats west of the 405 as far as Topanga Canyon and 135 to 160 deer in areas on both sides of the freeway.

A connection between the habitats adjacent to the 405 would help animals flee when disease or fire affects them on either side, Edelman said, and avoid isolating them in a way that leads to inbreeding.

But in a letter to Caltrans, a coalition of 19 neighborhood groups, schools and community organizations said there's no proof that if you build it, the animals will come. The group op-poses the bridge project, which would include moving the onramps and offramps about 800 feet from where they are now.

"That is just wasted money, and it's going to cause problems for thousands of residents up here," said Louise Frankel, wife of Ernest Frankel and head of the Mountaingate group.

Make the path feel like home

There are other spots where animals can cross under or over the freeway, she said, and "there is no documentation that animals are using them."

An environmental report prepared by Caltrans said wildlife experts have found tracks from deer, coyotes and foxes at one crossing, where Sepulveda Boulevard passes under the freeway.

The replacement bridge at the Skirball exit normally would have included a 5-foot-wide sidewalk on each side for pedestrians, said Rene Yin, Caltrans senior transportation engineer for the project.

Now, one side would have an extra 5 feet for wildlife.

Because traffic can make critters skittish, the bridge plan includes a 5-foot-high wall to block their view of the freeway and a 3-foot wall blocking their view of the bridge roadway.

Sierra Club activist Rosemary White said the animal path needs to be extended over or under busy Sepulveda Boulevard or it would be "like signing a death warrant" for creatures coming off the bridge.

City officials said that would cost an additional $1 million, money they don't have.

Plenty of wildlife crossings exist elsewhere, from toad tunnels in Davis -- which biologists say didn't work -- to well-traveled bridges for bears and panthers in Florida. The secret to success is not expecting animals to behave like people, scientists say.

Use dirt, bushes or whatever else makes a path feel like home, said Doug Updike, a scientist at the California Department of Fish and Game. Deer and rodents favor trees and scrub, he said, although he allowed that a concrete swath "is better than nothing."

Meanwhile, some state lawmakers have joined the chorus of those who think transportation bonds approved by voters were meant to ease the movement of human commuters, not the ones on four legs.

"People need to understand how their transportation money is being completely misspent," said Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks.