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Officials to take longer look at road work near Yosemite

The Ferguson rock slide on Highway 140, which was first activated in April 2006, has slowed traffic and lowered the number of tourists passing through the area.  This is true despite a temporary bypass bridge.
The Ferguson rock slide on Highway 140, which was first activated in April 2006, has slowed traffic and lowered the number of tourists passing through the area. This is true despite a temporary bypass bridge. The Merced Sun Star

WASHINGTON -- After activists objected to a quick analysis of major road work needed near Yosemite National Park, state officials Thursday said they will conduct the most thorough study possible of fixing a rockslide-blocked highway.

A full-bore environmental impact statement -- not a shortened study, as the state previously proposed -- will evaluate three alternatives for bypassing the Highway 140 rock slide. Environmentalists were pleased.

"I think this is a good move, especially since they didn't give full consideration to re-establishing the highway," said George Whitmore, chairman of a Yosemite-monitoring committee for the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter.

The California Department of Transportation said a draft of the new study should be ready in 30 to 60 days. But any added delay worries Mariposa County business leaders, who already are anxious over longer commutes and lost tourism.

In the Ferguson rock slide, 70,000 tons of rock and rubble tumbled onto the highway 12 miles west of Yosemite, starting in April 2006. Although a temporary bypass has reopened the two-lane highway, traffic to and from Yosemite has been slowed.

A permanent bypass using several new bridges over the Merced River won't be completed until at least 2012, Caltrans officials previously have estimated. Business leaders and lawmakers don't want the wait to grow longer.

"The problem is that small business is feeling the pinch," Leroy Radanovich, director of the Yosemite-Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, said.

His cousin, Rep. George Ra- danovich, R-Mariposa, represents Yosemite in the House of Representatives and likewise "wanted to get this (project) going as soon as possible," said Spencer Pederson, the congressman's spokesman.

The Federal Highway Administration revealed plans for the big study Thursday morning in the Federal Register, which agencies use for publishing rules and regulations.

Environmental impact statements can span hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages. Several public hearings will be held in Mariposa and El Portal. There is no timetable, according to Caltrans, but officials expect the hearings to take place soon.

The new study might be considerably more extensive than a 125-page environmental assessment completed in November.

The earlier assessment concluded the highway project, whichever option was chosen, "would not have a significant effect on the environment."

Fearing state officials were moving too fast, activists have been pressing for the more complete environmental impact statement.

Ken Gosting, director of Transportation Involves Everyone, a nonprofit group with a field office in Midpines, suggested that Caltrans officials "saw the handwriting on the wall" as they contemplated the possibility of lawsuits challenging the adequacy of an earlier environmental assessment.

Caltrans officials had said they needed to hear from interested groups before deciding whether they needed a full-blown study.

Each of the major options to be studied entails construction of two bridges across the Merced River to bypass the rock slide.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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