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Winter closure of Whitney Portal Road under consideration

August 15, 2014

Luejena Walquist with the Whitney Portal Cabin Owners Association said she just wants to make sure access to Whitney Portal Road is maintained for cabin owners. Photo by Charles James

Whitney Portal Road was on the agenda twice at Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors Meeting. Public Works Director Clint Quilter discussed the seasonal closure of Whitney Portal Road and asked for direction from the Board as to whether it should be a “soft” or “hard” closure.
The discussion that followed was in regards to a road closure schedule needed for reconstruction of approximately 11 miles road from Tuttle Creek Road to the parking lot at the Whitney Portal Store.
Quilter told the board that the county currently closes the roadway seasonally with portable barricades and signs generally after the first major winter storm of the year. The term used is “soft closure.” “The problem with it”, he says, “is that it is easily circumvented.” There has been a gate installed by the U.S. Forest Service and Inyo County that allows for the physical closure or what is called a “hard closure.”
According to Quilter there has generally been little snow plowing needed on the Whitney Portal Road in recent years, but there are rocks and boulders (one he described as “easily the size of a car”) that do require regular clearance and represent a threat to public safety. He went on to say that, “Whatever we come up with, the cabin owners will have access.”
First District County Supervisor Linda Arcularius, noting that there has been little snow the past few years, told Quilter, “I take your concerns seriously. I would like to see flexibility (on road closure) depending on the weather that year.”
The seasonal closure of the roadway involves issues of access for cabin owners, concessionaires, park service and county employees; safety for the public who may be trapped during a severe storm, and liability concerns should anyone be injured or killed by the unsafe conditions on the roadway that may be present in the winter such as snow, rocks, boulders, or simply very bad weather conditions.
Luejena Walquist with the Whitney Portal Cabin Owners Association spoke to weigh in on any road closure actions. Essentially they do not have a problem with either “soft” or “hard” closure as long as they continue to have unimpeded access to their cabins. There are currently 27 cabins located in the potentially affected area.
Doug Thompson, owner of the Whitney Portal Store, spoke out strongly against seasonal road closure, saying that the supervisors “need to consider the economic impact to local Inyo County communities in the winter rather than sending everyone up to Mono County to enjoy winter activities.” Noting that there is little evidence, since the road’s opening in 1935, that anyone has ever been seriously injured by having winter access to the Portal Road.
“Thousands of people from around the world and in the country visit Whitney in the winter to cross-country ski, ice climb, enjoy winter mountaineering, camping and hiking,” Thompson said. “They want to experience it while they are here … and often that is in the winter months. Don’t close off the access to the public and visitors to the area.”
After the meeting, Thompson observed that “By closing off areas in our county, we’re sending people to Mono County and Mammoth Lakes to enjoy winter activities … and their money goes with them. They’re not closing roads to keep people out in the winter. We need to keep our outdoor areas open in the winter so they continue to eat at our local restaurants, stay at our local motels and be able to enjoy winter activities that are available here.”
The issue of seasonal closure of the popular roadway and tourist attraction seems to be more about who would monitor and maintain the road in the winter, how often maintenance would be needed on the road, who is responsible and who pays for it. It is interesting that it appears to have been done since 1935, so it is somewhat puzzling to some why it is suddenly an issue and might require redress.
There are some that feel that the County should do an economic analysis before closing the road, noting that road closure didn’t work when it was attempted on the Saline Valley Road over the years. Many feel it will not work and is not needed on Whitney Portal Road. If it is closed, some are asking which roads will be closed next and what are the effects on public access to public lands.
Various signage such as “Road not maintained beyond this point” was discussed during the workshop, as were gate locks and who would have access if a hard closure was implemented. Even an additional gate was contemplated. In the end, it was a good discussion with supervisors posing questions and weighing suggestions. The matter of road closure on the Whitney Portal Road will be continued and not decisions have been made.
Discussion of a road closure schedule needed during reconstruction of 11 miles of Whitney Portal Road followed the workshop on seasonal closure. The roadway was originally built in 1935, and then again in 1965. Now 11 miles of the roadway, at a cost of $11.5 million, is being built by the Federal Highway Administration. The money comes from the FHWA’s Federal Lands Access Program. Four-foot wide bicycle lanes will be installed on each side of the road from the intersection with Tuttle Creek Road to the intersection of Horseshoe Meadows Road, and approximately 1,700 feet of guardrail will be installed or replaced.
Part of the project requires some hours of road closure. The supervisors were asked to approve closing the upper 5.2 miles of Whitney Portal Road between 8-11 a.m. and from 1-4 p.m., Monday through Friday while under construction. The road will be open form 11 a.m.-1 p.m. to allow traffic through the construction zone.
The Supervisors approved the closures and express support for the project as greatly improving access and safety to the popular Whitney Portal site.

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