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Town prepares to fight ramp closure

JOHN A. BAYLESS, Sierra Sun

Following an unexpected rejection by the Federal Highway Administration, Truckee’s residents, town staff and council are marshaling forces for a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

Two weeks ago, the Sacramento office of the FHWA denied a proposal by Truckee and Caltrans to retain the west-facing ramps at Highway 89 and Interstate 80, following construction of the Highway 267 Bypass.

The rejection by FHWA was a surprise to town council, as it capped months of design work and negotiations with Caltrans to receive that agency’s approval for retaining the ramps.

Caltrans forwarded the plans to FHWA less than a month ago – and the town was told it would receive a reply in about six to eight weeks. Instead the rejection came in only 10 days.

“I’m more than shocked,” Councilmember Bob Drake said. “We had tremendous support from almost every organization in town, regional support from the Tahoe area, congressmen, senators and state legislators.”

He said the town brought tremendous pressure to bear on Caltrans to approve the ramp designs.

“It’s a pretty minimal change – just leave the ramps, for God’s sake,” Drake said. “A small town like us spent $150,000 to hire our own engineer to design and defend an alternate design of what we wanted. Finally, after months and months of battle Caltrans says ‘OK, we can live with this.’ Finally, they send it to the feds. We’re told it will be a six to eight week response time. In less than 10 days a response comes back ‘No.’ I’m sorry. I just don’t think it was a very thorough review.”

Truckee’s delegation to Washington could include state and regional transportation officials, such as California Transportation Commission chairman Ed Sylvester, Nevada County Transportation Commissioner Dan Landon, and North Tahoe Transportation Commissioner Steve Teshara, as well as town councilmembers, staff and Truckee residents, Drake said.

“We want to sit down at some level with the FHWA people and say this is not that big a deal,” Drake said. “We have learned that they have different rules for different areas. Some things are allowed or permitted that would not be in an extremely high traffic area.”

FHWA cited safety concerns and the relatively low traffic load expected on the ramps as its primary reasons for rejecting the design.

The town acted swiftly to prepare a response to FHWA, calling the citizen’s committee together which initially considered the ramp issue, Town Manager Steve Wright said. The committee reached a consensus during its December meetings that the ramps should be saved if possible, but not at the expense of slowing down bypass construction.”

“It went well,” Wright said of the Friday committee meeting. “They are supportive of the concept of putting a delegation together to go to Washington and continue to press our case for retention of the ramps.”

Wright said the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association and the Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce are discussing who will represent Truckee’s commercial sector in the Washington delegation.

The town has been in contact with U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, as well as U.S. Rep. Wally Herger, to gain their support in possible negotiations with the highway administration.

“I think it’s not over yet,” Councilmember Maia Schneider said. “It [the FHWA rejection] was disappointing, but we are not down. We still have to go to Washington and do battle there.”

She said FHWA should consider the proposal more carefully.

“The plan we presented to Caltrans was a fair plan,” Schneider said. “It was a safe plan. We need to pursue that and try to retain the ramps. It is not dead yet.”

Councilmember Don McCormack shared the same views, but laid some responsibility for the rejection at the feet of Caltrans.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” McCormack said. “From the beginning Caltrans seemed completely unresponsive to our arguments about the traffic implications of retaining at least two ramps.”

He said Caltrans was reluctant to accept the town’s proposal, and that sentiment was probably reflected in the agency’s request to FHWA.

“When we spent $150,000 and showed Caltrans a project that would work, they gave only lukewarm support in their report to the feds,” McCormack said. “The feds then said “No.”

He said the fight is not over yet, but that it’s an uphill battle from this point.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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