Car talk: Caltrans Collects Comments to Improve a High Desert Highway

Highway 395 runs along California’s eastern side—a backbone highway figuratively—and a lonely one, too. Not as lonely as Nevada’s Highway 50—the so-called “Loneliest Road in America,” but Highway 395 travels a route through country that is high desert and scrub, shuttered towns and isolated cattle ranches with those sweeping, circular wheel lines that water the heck out of alfalfa fields.

Highway 395

It actually slices through four states—California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington—serving as a route for goods movement, commuters and vacationers: some 1,300 miles that can be traversed at highway speeds in 23 hours.

At night—especially warm summer evenings when the stars are out full-bore—you can have that all-American road-trip experience: windows down, freedom flying in your hair. Unless you’re listening to Coast-to-Coast AM radio show with George Noory. Then the dark side emerges: You suddenly realize—the highway is great place for an alien abduction.

The old railroad water tank in Madeline on Highway 395 is a landmark for travelers. Photo by Hal Silliman.

The old railroad water tank in Madeline on Highway 395 is a landmark for travelers. Photo by Hal Silliman.

In the northern part of California’s Outback, Highway 395 runs 203 miles, through Lassen and Modoc counties and a snippet of Sierra County. The state highway office is now studying the route to create a 20-year plan to make improvements. Caltrans District 2 officials are currently holding workshops—four are planned—in cities along the road—seeking citizens’ comments.

Two Caltrans transportation planners, Trina Blanchette and Laura Rose, were recently dispatched to Alturas for one of the workshops, held in the city council chambers that had been decorated with aerial images of sections of Highway 395. To loosen tongues, the duo also brought a pan of homemade brownies for folks to munch on.

The workshop attended by 15 local residents—including elected and agency officials—was chockfull of happily-relayed comments as the group studied the road, north from near Susanville to New Pine Creek, at the California-Oregon border. In the workshop, three basic questions were asked: What works well? What works not-so-well? How can it be improved?

As Blanchette said, “We want to hear your ideas about the route—since you travel it a lot.”

A windmill south of Madeline on Highway 395 reminds motorists that agriculture still thrives in the high desert. Photo by Hal Silliman.

A windmill south of Madeline on Highway 395 reminds motorists that agriculture still thrives in the high desert. Photo by Hal Silliman.

After collecting public comments and doing other information gathering and analysis, Blanchette said Caltrans plans to issue a final “transportation concept report” in December.

“We’ll identify potential improvements to make along the route,” she said.

Between Susanville and New Pine Creek, Highway 395 more or less parallels the old Nevada-California-Oregon railroad line—originally a narrow-gauge railroad that has gone through numerous owners since track was laid over a century ago and that helped establish now decayed towns like Litchfield, Ravendale, Termo and Madeline.

Ghost towns are still in the making along Highway 395. Photo by Hal Silliman.

Ghost towns are still in the making along Highway 395. Photo by Hal Silliman.

Only the small settlements of Likely and Davis Creek—along with the busy Modoc County seat Alturas—remain with going businesses. And the basic fact that Highway 395 in these parts is truly a lonely road puts a premium on safety, services, information and way-finding needed by travelers—evident from the consensus of comments made during the hour-long meeting. Among improvements needed, according to the locals are:

  • Consistent width to the roadway in parts north of Alturas. The road widens and constricts and widens again, without notice, and this is a hazard for motorists.
  • More web-accessible cameras to show highway conditions—especially at the higher elevation mountain passes like Sugar Hill north of Davis Creek, and Sage Hen Summit, south of Likely.
  • Signs that denote what services are available and where.
  • The old-fashion “cinders” used on icy spots—rather than whatever Caltrans is using nowadays.
  • Rest stops with bathrooms that have water—not the smelly “vault” toilets—and are open year-round. There is only one rest stop in 203 miles—chemical toilets located on a downgrade that’s not very safe, participants said.
  • Warnings for motorists that they are passing through “open range”—where the cows have the right-of-way. “People hit them and have died,” noted one participant.
  • Signs that indicate where people can access the rail trail—the alignment of the NCO Railroad from Susanville to near Likely that has been turned into recreation asset.
  • In Alturas, 25 MPH signs through downtown, as traffic has a tendency forget the speed limit.
  • Red zones at downtown Alturas intersections so it’s easier for cross traffic to see oncoming autos on the highway.
  • More pedestrian-activated crossing signals and well-marked crosswalks. These could even be solar powered as in other parts of the state.

One little bit of information eeked out—from a participant and was augmented by Caltrans staff: There is a longstanding plan to transform the Highway 395 alignment from the Arizona-Mexico border to the Washington-Canada border into a super highway akin to Interstate 5. It even has a name: I-11

“Not going to happen in our lifetime,” was the general consensus from the group. Still, the idea of a full-bore interstate knifing through Eastern California creates wild surmise, and Blanchette said she will include a notation about I-11 that “the proposal is out there” in the new report being created. A draft of that report will be available by fall 2017 here.

H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.

Copyright 2017. © All rights reserved.

 

All photos by H.A. Silliman

 

H.A. Silliman
H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.
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