Would Caltrans really cut down 100 trees for a highway project that likely won’t happen? So far, Caltrans Director Tom Hallenbeck says they will.

When Governor Schwarzenegger announced he would not allow funding for highway projects due to severe State budget problems, folks in Independence hoped Caltrans would move slowly to remove 100 trees for a highway project through their town. Caltrans Director Hallenbeck doesn’t see it that way.

Hallenbeck had promised the people of Independence not to cut down any of their trees this week as more news comes in on the State budget and the status of their four-lane project. In spite of repeated promises, the crews took out their chain saws Tuesday morning and started to cut.

Residents sent out alarums through town and a reminder of his promise pushed Hallenbeck to call off the saws. He said that an unamed Caltrans engineer in Sacramento told him the Independence project had not been suspended and that bills would be paid for December. The Caltrans Director admitted he had nothing in writing to assure the remainder of the $43 million project but wants to cut the trees down next week anyway.

Independence property owner and local attorney Kenney Scruggs said that a letter from the State Department of Finance directly contradicts Tom Hallenbeck’s claim that the project is not suspended.

That letter spells out project suspension and freezes. It says that all state entities with control over bond funded programs like the one in Independence shall suspend all projects.

Also, on December 19th, the State Director of Caltrans, Will Kempton, wrote that the State had suspended disbursements of pooled money funds for all bond-funded projects like the Independence-Manzanar four lane project. Kempton wrote that “the State will not release any additional bond funds until the fiscal situation has improved.”

No one has said the State of California’s fiscal situation will improve soon. In fact, the Governor ominously predicts a $42 billion short fall in the next year and a half.

Will Caltrans destroy 100 trees on the prayer that the State will fund the four-lane project? Local residents continue to listen for saws.