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What’s Bugging You, Eastern Sierra? – Vroom and Gloom: Speeding in Our Small Towns

What’s Bugging You, Eastern Sierra? – Vroom and Gloom

eastern sierra now what's bugging you
Incoming Friday afternoon traffic on Highway 395 in Big Pine. Photo by ESN.

This time… it’s personal.

A while back I posted on this very group about there not being enough traffic enforcement in our little town of Big Pine.  It seems at least once or twice a week I see someone zipping through it with no regard for others and for posted speed limits.

Funnily enough, I ran into Eastern Sierra Now owner Jesse Steele at the local Chevron.  You know, the one that has everything from crickets to fancy mountain water to socks.  We were chatting outside about this very story idea, when we both heard the squeal of brakes and a shout of exclamation as a fifty year old woman was almost mowed down in the crosswalk by a speeding red SUV.

I took it as a sign, and we immediately reached out to Jennifer Roeser, District 4 Supervisor for the county of Inyo to see if she had any information on the matter.  Here is what she had to say:

August 23, 2023 

Thank you, Eastern Sierra Now, for focusing on this critical issue. 

Traffic speeding through our valley towns has been a problem for as long as I can remember – and in fact is the no. 1 issue that generates concerned calls from my constituents. The issue, unfortunately, only seems to be getting worse, expanding from Main Street to our side roads with the increasing popularity of local recreation areas.

It’s something I have worked hard to understand and address since taking office in January 2021, delving quite a bit into the development and programming of highway safety improvement projects by serving on the Inyo County Local Transportation Commission (LTC). This commission guides priorities for spending various highway and road funds – essentially recommending where the funding could be put to best use for the sake of the traveling public. I have also engaged with Caltrans District 9 Director Ryan Dermody from the beginning. Director Dermody is extremely concerned about speeding and safety in our towns along U.S. 395 and has shown incredible responsiveness on the issue.

The bottom line of what I’ve learned: the solution is not as simple as putting up stoplights – especially in the middle of a town where Main Street is also a major corridor highway. Stoplights are also controversial; for every citizen I talk to who wants more traffic lights, there is at least one who doesn’t want a stoplight. Comments are across the board, but mostly comprise of those who live and work close to Main Street not wanting to hear truck airbrakes.

Further, funding determines a lot of the features of our transportation system, and the parties in charge of applying that funding – the Governor-appointed California Transportation Commission (CTC) – must be able to fully understand rural areas and small-town Main Streets and differentiate them from urban and metropolitan areas. 

So, what we can do? Fixing the speeding problem has been and will continue to be an incremental process.

A good first step was identifying projects already in the works that could be used as an opportunity to provide for some added safety in town. This is how we found out about the Fish Springs and Manzanar Pavement Projects. These projects were intended to replace asphalt on several miles of highway, but due to the source of funding, called the “State Highway Operation and Protection Program,” we were able to carve out some funds for safety features in Big Pine and Independence. 

I held two public hearings and two town halls and residents and I were able to generate over 75 public comments – a record for the environmental document, according to District 9 transportation planners. Big Pine spoke loud and clear! As a result, the upcoming project, slated in begin construction in January 2025, has numerous features at several locations designed to slow traffic, increase pedestrian safety, and raise awareness of the community along the highway thoroughfare. Look for updates on this project soon. 

The LTC has also asked to begin utilizing whatever was in Caltrans’ toolbox to make it safer for pedestrians on Main Streets/U.S. 395. Hence the “Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons” at U.S. 395 & Crocker in Big Pine. As I understand it, Caltrans can use a variety of tools which continually escalate depending on effectiveness. So, we can start with these beacons and work up to higher degrees of encroachment as needed. For the record, the Fish Springs Pavement project now in the final design stages includes Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons in two places (the same feature found at East Elm and Main Street in Bishop). 

Until this project comes to fruition, there are many steps we are taking and attempting to implement. In a recent meeting with Director Dermody with myself and County staff, we talked about Education, Engineering and Enforcement. What this means is safety on Main Street requires a multi-faceted approach. 

Education – Caltrans has pedestrian safety courses that can be taught in schools. This might be a good consideration for school children, especially considering the high school student who was clipped very badly in Lone Pine earlier this year. Education also includes focusing on drivers. How do we get drivers to realize they are driving through a community, not just on a highway? This is what a new project grant application called “Highways to Boulevards” attempts to do. Just last week several of us meet with Caltrans planners and videographers to film stories of why Main Streets are important and how we hope to “re-connect” our communities that have been dissected by 395. 

If Caltrans gets this grant, we will have the opportunity to implement features that reconnect the east and west sides of towns and draw our communities, including Big Pine, back together. One way to do this is signage, structures, and other features (perhaps art or greenery) to educate visitors that they are not on the Indy 500 track or on an airport runway, but literally driving through a community via Main Street! This project has huge potential, both to educate drivers and engineer features that can help slow drivers down.

Engineering – This is Caltrans’ role and as described above there are many things happening in this area currently. 

Enforcement – In coordination with our Inyo County Sheriff’s Department and the CHP, we are looking at strategies for enforcement and education. Note the placement of patrol vehicles in Lone Pine. This needs to be replicated throughout the valley. Good old fashioned speed traps are a good option – we continue to work with CHP on this and there is some good response in Independence. If drivers coming from north or south start getting stopped more regularly, word gets out. It is slow but it works. There probably isn’t anyone that doesn’t know you should not speed into the south end of Bridgeport. We all know what’s going to happen! As CHP has the ability with a small staff of officers in a huge geographic area, this will become a greater piece of the puzzle. 

Sheriff Rennie is looking into grant funding for radar in deputy’s patrol cars. This would be useful and keep deputies much safer if they engage a speeding driver. 

Another option we work with is the portable speed trailers which the Road Department deploys. These are very effective for a while, but apparently lose some effectiveness over time. This is why it’s best to move them around. 

Along this line, I looked into Speed Safety Cameras with State Senator Marie Alvarado-Gil and her Chief of Staff. There have been some trial bills in the legislature but so far have proven controversial given perceived civil rights issues. This has been a push back from urban areas. I’m not sure how people feel about this, so I will have tread lightly. Nonetheless, our legislators in Sacramento are aware of our concerns on 395 and know we need to continue to find solutions on State Highways to make them safer for citizens in our rural communities. I will continue to advocate for this issue and possible solutions via the various appointments, committees, and commissions on which I serve.

I know this is a long response to the original question – but it’s a complex, long-standing issue that takes a variety of solutions. There is no silver bullet unfortunately!

Thanks again to Eastern Sierra Now for bringing attention to this issue. I know people will have questions, so they should feel free to call me at 760-878-8609 or email me at [email protected]

So there you have it.  It’s a rather complicated issue, from the looks of things, with no ONE answer.  Hopefully, we’ll start to see some improvements soon.  In the meantime, if you’re driving through Big Pine, SLOW DOWN please.

A special thank you to Jennifer Roeser for the information.

Catch up on “What’s Bugging You, Eastern Sierra?” here.

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Darrin Stephens
Darrin Stephens
3 months ago

Back in the 1900s the Town of San Andreas had a similar issue. The Town’s solution was a strong presence by law enforcement at both ends of town… and later everywhere in-between. It was so effective that the rumor was speeding tickets became a significant income stream for the Town. Without a doubt the flow of traffic dropped to a safe speed and one could walk across from the video store to the bakery without fear of death. As you might expect some felt resentment towards living in a “Police State” but no one doubted the results.

Good luck Big Pine. Whatever you decide, make your choice with pride.

Darrin Stephens

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