17 January 2011

Why is Carbon Canyon Road Still a State Highway?

Governor Jerry Brown, since his election a couple of months ago, has often noted that many aspects of state government ought to be returned to local jurisdictions.  Given that much of conservative political philosophy is based on the premise that local government is far more effective and responsive than its state or national counterparts, there may actually be some synthesis between the so-called "Governor Moonbeam" and his Republican counterparts.  A local Carbon Canyon example of how this might be further developed is State Route 142, or Carbon Canyon Road, a state highway that has almost certainly evolved far beyond its status over the decades.

Almost a year ago, a post on the road's history appeared in this blog with the conclusion that there would be more on the subject later.  Well, here's later.  It will be recalled that Carbon Canyon Road was first built through the entire canyon in 1914, followed a little more than a decade later by a complete paving for two purposes: to create a route from inland to coastal areas and to assist promoters of Los Serranos Country Club in providing a shorter southern route to their golf course and real estate development from Los Angeles.  The paving of the roadway also came about as two major Canyon projects were underway:  the Sleepy Hollow subdivision and La Vida Mineral Springs resort.  To that point, it appears that the counties, Orange and San Bernardino, bore responsibility for the planning and development of the road.

In 1933, however, Carbon Canyon Road became part of a numbered state highway system and it was given the designation of Route 177.  Despite this, the road was not signed for another three decades.  By 1964, the numeric system changed and the highway was assigned a new number: 142.  Signage finally was put in, as well.  Moreover, from the Route 177 period there was an intention to continue the roadway beyond the developed route from Imperial Highway at Valencia Avenue in Brea to Central Avenue (since moved back westward to the 71 Freeway) in Chino.   This extension would have taken the highway northward along Central Avenue to the old State Route 30, now the 210 Freeway in Upland.  To this day, this legal definition exists, although it was not implemented and certainly never will.

Because Carbon Canyon Road was an inland to coastal roadway, it obviously seemed to the state to be a major arterial roadway that deserved to be a state highway.  In some ways, it still is, as thousands of commuters travel the mostly two-lane highway as it snakes through Carbon Canyon to avoid the congestion of the 91 Freeway or the 60 Freeway, as well as the heavily congested and recently created Grand Avenue passage between Chino Hills and Diamond Bar.

Yet, its designation occurred seventy-eight years ago, in a totally different era, and when the Carbon Canyon area was as rural as it could be.  What made sense then doesn't necessarily make sense now.  As conditions have changed, so, perhaps, has the rationale.

One can look, by way of comparison, at the Grand Avenue extension, which came a couple of decades ago.  While the road pushed south and east across the 57 Freeway from Walnut (its northern terminus being near the San Gabriel Mountains in Glendora and Azusa) during Diamond Bar's major development phase in the 1960s through 1980s, it abruptly terminated at city and county limits.  Chino Hills developed later and so a link between Edison Avenue on the Chino side to Diamond Bar was forged with a right-of-way granted by the City of Industry through its Tonner Canyon ranch, Tres Hermanos.  Yet, there was never a movement to designate Grand Avenue a state highway, even though its purpose is fundamentally the same as that of Carbon Canyon Road: an alternate route for masses of commuters avoiding the 60 and 91 freeways.  Was it easier to avoid such a designation because the connection was made during a suburban phase, rather than a rural one?  Did Diamond Bar and Chino Hills prefer to have exclusive local control over Grand Avenue rather than hand it over to the state?  Maybe it simply never came up.

Another interesting comparison is State Route 39.  This highway stretched from the ocean at Huntington Beach all the way to a connection with State Route 2, a.k.a. Angeles Crest Highway, in the San Gabriel Mountains.  It had obvious attractions as a recreational route at the time it was designated.  Aside from Huntington Beach, which was a mid-size town in the early days of highway designation, the route was mainly rural as it moved through central and northern Orange County, passing small towns like Buena Park and a small berry farm owned by Walter and Cordelia Knott, over the Puente Hills via Hacienda Road (later Boulevard) and then over to Azusa Road (Avenue) through more farmland until it reached Azusa.  From there it entered the San Gabriel Mountains and provided (still partially does, though closed because of landslides) a gorgeous scenic drive until its northern terminus at SR-2.

Over the last five or six decades, though, suburbia claimed the farmlands and SR-39 became a commuter road and local thoroughfare for a dozen or more cities that expanded around it.  Except for a brief interlude in the Puente Hills, its fairly dramatic conclusions at the shore in Huntington Beach, and its majestic traversing through the mountains to the north, most of the route was basically as indistinguishable as other north-south roadways, such as Brookhurst Avenue, Euclid Street, Magnolia Avenue and so on.

A stretch of State Route 142 (Carbon Canyon Road) in Brea.  Would relinquishing the highway to local government be more efficient that continuing state control or would it put undue burdens on the cities of Brea and Chino Hills?

More relevantly, in the 1990s or thereabouts, a significant portion of the route was actually declassified (relinquished being the official term) as a state highway.  This was a section running from Whittier Boulevard up Hacienda Road/Boulevard in the Puente Hills and back down into the San Gabriel Valley and then all the way up to the 10 Freeway in West Covina.  Interestingly, the state relinquished a half-mile section north of the 10 to the cities of Azusa and Covina, though still signed as the highway to avoid driver confusion!  Evidently, the section of SR-39 passing through West Covina is eligible for relinquishment should that city every request it.  So, at this point, SR-39 runs about 22.5 miles in Orange County before terminating.  It then resumes on Azusa Avenue from I-10 another 28 miles before ending at a point several miles below SR-2.  The connection to Angeles Crest Highway, incidentally, may actually be completed by 2015 if funds are available.

What would be interesting to know (and maybe someone out there does) is why certain cities and jurisdictions, opted out of having SR-39 going through their communities.  Did La Habra Heights, for example, choose to do so to exercise more control over the roadway as it passed through town?  What were other considerations and justifications?

So, if Highway 39 can be, at least partially, relinquished, why couldn't Highway 142?  For example, it wasn't all that long ago that CalTrans briefly lowered the speed limit on the San Bernardino County/Chino Hills portion of the road, citing a study's conclusions that warranted it.  The City of Chino Hills, not being apprised of the change, quickly registered its concerns and CalTrans backed off.  Communications snafus such as this would obviously be mitigated if the road were relinquished back to local control.

When the Stonefield housing development was proposed and then approved for land bordering the state highway, hearings before the Chino Hills Planning Commission and City Council, as well as city staff reports, noted that certain improvements could not be made to the project without CalTrans approval.  There might be favorable outcomes to the city in that it could always pass the responsibility onto the state for difficult decisions it might not want to make itself.  On the other hand, there may be times in which cities would like to be able to make those decisions without having to answer to the state.  Then again, citizens might prefer tougher CalTrans standards to ones that could well be more lax at the local level, especially where development comes into play.  It's a difficult issue to assess, depending on whose competing interests are at hand.

There are other questions, as well.  For instance, Carbon [Canyon] Creek, which is city property wherever it flows, has become grossly clogged with trees, weeds and other plant material.  This condition is such that heavy rains have led to higher water levels, which, in turn, have eroded the edges of portions of the state highway.  In the storms of 2004-05, this led to a collapse between Canon Lane and Canyon Hills Road in Chino Hills that closed the road for a few weeks while CalTrans made repairs.  Even the recent bout of wet December weather has caused some erosion of the roadside just across from here.  Could it be argued that relinquishing the road from state to local control would actually force the city to be proactive in its responsibility to properly maintain the creek so that the highway was not adversely affected by rising water levels from downpours?

Fortunately, on the San Bernardino County side, Measure I, which increased the county's sales tax, provides funds for transportation projects and CalTrans District 8 has been able to tap these resources to better maintain the Chino Hills side of Carbon Canyon Road far better than District 12 on the Orange County portion.  Would that money available if the highway were the responsibility of the city?  Moreover, wouldn't funds be better spent with less bureaucratic hurdles and more efficiency at the local level than by the state, at least by the argument posed by those who champion local over state government generally?

As it is, maintenance of SR-142 is within the purview of CalTrans while patrolling and policing falls under the duties of the city.  Is this the balance that is needed or wanted for the long term?  This post hardly pretends to have the answers and merely raises the issue. 

In fact, when naivete held greater sway (though still does) in the earlier days of this blog, a call was placed to then State Assembly member Bob Huff, whose district included Chino Hills and whose seat is now held by former city council member Curt Hagman.  The purpose was to talk about the question of dealing with dangerous driving and what might be done at the legislative level because of the state's ownership of the highway.  The unaswered answer there was, untimately, nothing, but, when it was pointed out to the staffer on the other end of the phone that Highway 39 had been relinquished through La Habra Heights and that doing so in Carbon Canyon might possibly force local governments to be more active in mitigating dangerous driving (how little one knew in those days of innocence!), there was actually a long pause and then the staffer said with some surprise that this was a question that had not occurred to him before, but that he would look into it.   This often being code for "thanks for the question, but you won't be hearing from me again," and having been the recipient of this code the only other time in my adult life that I've sought legislative help (the other time being just this past summer from my federal Representative's staff) I was hardly surprised that the return call was not forthcoming.

So, yes, it may be completely naive and unrealistic to think that relinquishing State Highway 142 back to the local jurisdictions in Brea and Chino Hills has any merit and there may be many arguments against (or, perhaps, even for) such an idea that has not come up in this hurriedly-typed entry (it is, after all, nearly midnight).  But, it seemed worth at least tossing out there.  Because, should matters remain in status quo just because they've been that way.  Would there be more benefit than constrains if relinquishement occurred?  Or is it better for all parties involved to leave Carbon Canyon Road as a state highway?  Are rhetorical questions really worth asking?


Empoprises said...

The comparison with Grand Avenue is persuasive, but there is potentially one issue with local control - for roads such as Carbon Canyon Road and Grand Avenue that traverse multiple jurisdictions, there's a need for the jurisdictions to cooperate with each other. I still remember when Grand Avenue was initially built, and one of the jurisdictions (Diamond Bar I think) actually blocked the road. What would happen if Brea and Chino Hills got into some sort of dispute, and one of the cities decided to block the road to stop traffic from the other side?

My personal view is that Carbon Canyon Road (and Grand Avenue) are important inter-county roadways that properly belong under state control. Because of the evolution of traffic, Route 39, although it is (was) also an inter-county roadway, is a less critical artery.

Anonymous said...

At least for the Brea side, I think the issue is simply one of cost. Brea doesn't have the expertise or "deep pocket" resources and equipment investments to be able to maintain, repair and pre-emptively prevent trouble on its hilly side of the Road. Caltrans does. And most of the time when the road closes it closes on the Brea side.

Ry said...

I enjoy your blog very much. I have lived in tonner canyon at the edge of diamond bar for my whole life... Not that long after reading the wonderful history you posted of this area.. I just wanted to say thanks for writing and I'll be back often..


prs said...

Hello Empoprises, thanks for the comment. I suppose that, if there was some dispute, between Chino Hills and Brea, commuters would have some influence on the scenario you give. I agree, though, that prevailing views of the importance of Carbon Canyon Road as a regional roadway will keep it under CalTrans' jurisdiction. Thanks again.

prs said...

Hi Anonymous, I agree that, at the moment, the costs of maintaining the highway would be prohibitve or both Brea and Chino Hills. What would have to happen is that transportation funding that currently goes to the state would be redistributed to local jurisdictions or that local government would keep greater shares of revenue generated by them for infrastructure. My premise was based on the idea of shifting more responsibility in governing from the state to localities. If things remain as they are, though, you are right in saying that the costs are too much for the cities.

prs said...

Hello Ry, thanks and I hope to have more about Tonner Canyon soon.

Craig Sibley said...

As a State Highway, Route 142 is on the list as a designated "Scenic Highway".

My understanding is that Cal Trans has never recognized this designation, but I don't know the specifics of this.

My question would be; what, if ANY might this designation be used as a protectionist device to retard future development in our beloved canyon?

It may be something to look into.

Apparently, for a highway to be declared scenic, the government with jurisdiction over abutting land must adopt a "scenic corridor protection program" that limits development, outdoor advertising, and earthmoving, and Caltrans must agree that it meets the criteria.

The placard adjacent to Olinda Village has the California Poppy placard designating that 142 has this designation.

If the state were to surrender the corridor to local jurisdiction, are we at danger of losing this protection... or is it simply a meaningless moniker?

I'm just wondering if anyone knows the skinny on this potentially important (or not) issue.

All the best,

Craig Sibley
Carbon Canyon Resident for over 17 years.

Anonymous said...

Hi Craig, SR 142 is officially eligible, but has not been designated, for scenic route status.

Several years back, I looked into designation for the Chino Hills side with the local CalTrans District 8 office. I was told that would not happen because there has been too much development already that has compromised the criteria used for designation.

I can't speak to the Brea side, but wouldn't be surprised if the conclusion was the same if District 12 was asked about it.

Incidentally, I don't see a sign with the California poppy (scenic route symbol) anywhere on SR-142, much less in Olinda Village. Maybe you saw another sign that looked like it?

As it turns out, protection against further development in Carbon Canyon that will be an even greater than existing adverse impact on Carbon Canyon Road isn't through scenic route designation (which apparently isn't going to happen.) Nor is it the provisions of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which contains huge loopholes for cities to use to pass projects that have major adverse impacts. It probably isn't even citizen involvement, if such a phenomenon were to ever develop in an impactful way. Instead, for the last few years, it's been the terrible economy and real estate market.