Hwy 395 construction ups commuter safety

OLANCHA, Calif. If you drive to Mammoth or anyplace in the Eastern Sierra, you know very well it's a journey through time with its historic, old towns like Independence and its antique Highway 395. Long, narrow stretches of the highway's two-lane road has cost the lives of scores of motorists.

"We've had horrendous accidents. We've killed people and maimed people, and our firemen have had to go to those accidents and it's been horrific," said Inyo County Supervisor Beverly Brown.

All of that is nearly a thing of the past. Caltrans has slowly improved Highways 14, north of Mojave, and 395, north of Ridgecrest, a little piece at a time by putting in four lanes instead of two, adding wider shoulders and longer turnouts, and enhancing safety on one of the most scenic and dangerous highways in America.

And, the job's almost finished.

"We've been four-lane-ing this corridor since 1955. There's been a series of projects over the last 50 years, one every year or one every three years as funding becomes available," said Caltrans Director Thomas Hallenback. "We're out there chipping away at it. At first, it seems like it's going to take forever, but like anything else, like eating an elephant, just one bite at a time."

Construction crews are working on two segments of the new four-lane roadway on either side of Independence, which will be completed this fall. Residents of Independence and Lone Pine decided not to have the new section of Highway 395 bypass them. There is frustration with all the traffic, but most feel it's worth the aggravation.

"Currently, it's really tough," said Lone Pine resident Maggie Wittenburg, "but everybody believes that the improvements on the highway will really accrue to everybody's advantage."

Caltrans knows it has taken a long time to get to this point. Money has always been the problem. Years ago, three Eastern Sierra counties, Mono, Inyo and Kern, pooled their highway funds and began four-lane-ing the roadways starting in Mono County. Now that they're getting close, residents find it hard to hold back their enthusiasm.

"We're happy, happy people," said Inyo Supervisor Brown.

When the current construction is completed, there will be only two portions of Highway 14 and 395 to finish before it's four-laned all the way from Los Angeles to Lee Vining. After that, Caltrans will start on Highway 395 to San Bernardino.

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