Bypass project scrapped

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By Jennifer Garcia

Los Alamos County residents packed council chambers during Monday night’s meeting, all sitting elbow to elbow, with nary an empty seat visible.

Residents showed up to support their positions on the West Jemez Bypass project.

Emotions sometimes ran high as residents took their turn addressing council at the podium.

After a compelling presentation by project proponent Greg Kendall and comments from the public, the project was removed from the Capital Improvement Projects list on a 7-0 vote.

This is not the first time that the West Jemez Bypass project has seen turmoil.

In December 2005 council unanimously authorized filing suit against the National Nuclear Security Agency and the Department of Energy, alleging violations of the National Environmental Protection Act in approving the modified Security Perimeter Project.

Following a court settlement, the county’s initial project goals were to fulfill obligations of the court settlement, connect Diamond Drive to West Road/Ski Hill Bypass without having to go through access control check points, improve traffic operations, provide improved Research Park access, eliminate U-turns and minimize construction impacts.

Project expenditures for the project add up to $1,509,210, however, the estimated total cost of the project would have been $15.56 million.

“I was all for the county suing the NNSA,” Kendall said. “I believe the county did the right thing in pursuing the lawsuit. Do we need four roads in the same place?”

In his presentation to council, Kendall said that the NNSA has indicated that the bypass would be a security issue and that it was too close to the area NNSA is trying to protect. He also said that he’s heard people are having difficulty getting to the ski hill.

“We could inadvertently make Totatvi the gateway to the Jemez,” he said of going through with the project. He also pointed out that better signage could help solve the problem of visitors feeling intimidated by the checkpoints.

Public Works Director Kyle Zimmerman was also in council chambers during the meeting, where he answered councilors’ questions regarding the project.

He said that the county so far, has spent $1.6 million on the project.

Councilor Ralph Phelps asked Zimmerman, “Do we definitely have $2 million in state funding?”

In response, Zimmerman said, “As far as I know, we have the funds.”

Councilor Sharon Stover was also concerned with funding and asked if there was an assurance of federal dollars for the project.

“There’s been a federal earmark included in the ’07 budget. To our knowledge, it still exists,” County Administrator Max Baker said.

Funding, however, was not the only issue that concerned council.

During the meeting, Kendall suggested that West Road could be an alternative route to building the bypass.

However, Councilor Nona Bowman had great reservations about the traffic volume on that road, which according to county staff sees about 600 cars per day, and about safety issues in the winter.

“The road does get black ice. If people slide, they could hit others coming up and down (the road). We have to consider the safety issues,” she said.

In exploring the possibility of using West Road as an alternative, Councilor Robert Gibson wanted to know what condition West Road is in and what sort of maintenance costs the county would be faced with.

Zimmerman told Gibson that he hasn’t seen anything that would point out a need for a rebuild on West Road and in theory, if taken care of, it should last about 15-20 years.

In addition to the safety and financial concerns regarding the proposed bypass, another concern arose when Gibson asked Zimmerman when the intersection portion of the bypass would be constructed.

Zimmerman suggested that it would be in the summer of this year, or the fall of 2010, meaning that it would happen the same time that Diamond Drive Phase IV would be under construction.

However, Zimmerman reassured Gibson that the county has the manpower and resources to conduct two major projects simultaneously.

Residents raised other concerns about the project that were not associated with cost or safety issues, but rather the impact that construction of the bypass would have on the environment.

“I have lived in Los Alamos for 20 years,” resident Maureen Cafferty said, in a wavering, shaky voice. “I work at LANL and I hike the canyon almost every day. I was almost in tears thinking about the wildlife. I don’t see the benefit of it all,” she continued.

Ellen Walton, another resident, agreed with Cafferty.

“I have never been in favor of this project. The cost and damage to the environment has never been justified,” she commented.

Emily Schultz-Vallens also concurred with Cafferty. “I’m very much against the West Jemez Bypass. The destruction of the trails would be very damaging. It would be a fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the county,” she said.

In all, councilors heard about two hours of comment, almost all of which was against the bypass road.

Following the public comment period, Councilor Vincent Chiravalle offered his comments on the project.

“There are two existing roads that provide access to the ski hill from the town site. The public put us here to be stewards of public money,” he said in a loud, stern voice.

Wismer agreed with Chiravalle and said, “In my view, I believe this road is unnecessary, dangerous and of unsubstantiated economic need. There are no economic stimulus dollars that will provide the rest of the funding for this project. The way to fix confusion is to add signage,” he continued.

“I think it’s time for the county to be the master of its own destiny.”

Though he seemed to have reservations about building the bypass, Gibson said that he didn’t want to build it, but he felt that the county has to.

“I feel dismayed that the DOE put us in this position. This may be the only opportunity we get for decades to build a road in this location,” he said.

He also suggested that the project not be removed from the CIP list, but rather delayed until a later date, that would be decided by the county.

Gibson made a motion to delay the project, which failed with a 2-5 vote, where only he and Bowman voted in favor of it.

More discussion followed the failed vote, during which Chiravalle said, “The West Jemez and connector road is a bad idea now and it will be a bad idea 30 years from now. We need to seek to obtain easement from the DOE for West Road. Any option that proposes to build a connector road and alter our canyon is a bad decision.”

Following the vote to scrap the project, many audience members applauded council’s decision. Another motion, to direct staff to develop cost-effective solutions for safety, signage and risk was also presented and that motion passed unanimously.