The proposed High Desert freeway has residents divided

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You might think the era of building new freeways in Southern California is over. But an eight-lane stretch of asphalt has been proposed to connect the rural desert cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, in far northern LA County, with those of Victorville and Apple Valley, in the San Bernardino County.

Deb Hill and Moldy Marvin at Littlerock Grill. Photo by Jenn Swann. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Jeffrey Hillinger was just a kid when construction began in the 1960s on California State Route 14. At the time, the area surrounding Palmdale and Lancaster in the Antelope Valley, where Route 14 now cuts through, was mostly just olive groves and orchards of peach and pear trees.

“I remember my father saying, ‘Well, why are they building this big highway here? There’s nobody that lives here. The place is barren. It’s just desert,’” says Hillinger, a musician better known to his community as Moldy Marvin, a nickname given to him by the late artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

More than half a century later, Palmdale and Lancaster are among the fastest-growing cities in L.A. County, and officials are looking to erect a new freeway there once again. Dubbed the High Desert Corridor, the proposed eight-lane stretch of asphalt would run 63 miles from east to west, connecting the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, in far northern LA County, with those of Victorville and Apple Valley, in the San Bernardino County. The controversial project, partially funded by the passage of Measure M in 2016, also includes plans for an adjacent bike lane and a train to Las Vegas. While critics see it as a waste of money and resources and a danger to the Mojave desert environment, the agencies supporting the freeway could begin purchasing land to build it as soon as this spring.

To Palmdale mayor James Ledford, the project represents the future of the region. “Let’s fast forward 20, 30 years from now. If we’re not planning that next step, we’re going to get caught in a bad situation,” says Ledford, who is currently facing felony corruption charges related to perjury and conflict of interest and could serve prison time if convicted. “We’re not going to stand back and wait for gridlock to occur without thinking: What’s our next step? So that’s why this highway’s so important.”

The idea of a freeway connecting the high desert from east to west isn’t entirely new, and some say it’s a step backward for a region that has increasingly pumped money into expanding its public transit. The High Desert Corridor was first proposed in the 1970s as an alternate route for truckers carrying cargo. It gained a new sense of urgency in the early 2000s, thanks to the population growth of the Antelope Valley. If completed, it would be the first freeway built in LA County since the completion of the costly 105 Freeway in 1993.

Ryan McEachron, a former Victorville mayor who now serves as special projects coordinator for the highway’s planning authority, acknowledges that the freeway may seem like something of a throwback. But the way he sees it, Californians aren’t going to part with their cars anytime soon — dwindling Metro ridership numbers suggest he may be right.

“We in California enjoy our vehicles. We enjoy our cars and that’s proven in what you see on a daily basis on our freeways,” says McEachron. “I think as much as some might say, you know, this is the last thing we ought to be doing, in essence this may be the last opportunity that we have to build a highway in Southern California because there’s nowhere else to go.”

Wall decorations at Littlerock Grill. Photo by Jenn Swann. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

McEachron says the project would likely bring new housing opportunities, retail developments, and jobs to the region. But that’s the opposite of what community activists like Linda Wucherpfennig – who, like Moldy Marvin, lives in unincorporated Littlerock – want. If the freeway gets built, she fears the rural community could transform into a network of fast food restaurants and gas stations built off freeway exits. The word she uses to describe it? Sprawl.

“That urban sprawl is something that we would like to see not come into this area because it’s one of the last few beautiful areas of LA County that’s truly rural and it’s truly wilderness and wild,” says Wucherpfennig. We’re sitting at a picnic table at Charlie Brown Farms, a local general store that sells everything from fruits and nuts to retro toys and souvenirs and feels like a throwback to another era. “You have wildlife, you have all forms of recreation and it’s just its going to take a big toll on that. There is no way of avoiding it.”

Deb Hill, an opponent of the project who lives in the Antelope Valley and commutes to a job at an aviation manufacturing company some 65 miles south, in the San Fernando Valley, says she’s not anti-freeway. She just doesn’t understand the need for one that runs east to west rather than north and south. She believes the county should instead focus on upgrading the 14 Freeway, one of the most congested in the region, and the only one connecting it with greater Los Angeles. “The people that actually commute, they don’t want a desert highway cutting across,” she says, sitting next to Moldy Marvin at Littlerock Grill, a family-owned diner off Highway 138. “They want one cutting down [to Los Angeles].”

Lilia Lucero with her horse in Littlerock, California . Photo by Jenn Swann. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Not everyone thinks the project is such a terrible idea. Lilia Lucero, who lives in unincorporated Little Rock, on a property with no sidewalks out front and horses and chickens in the back, says the highway would connect her to family in Victorville. Plus, the proposed train would speed up the travel time to Las Vegas. She points out it could also reduce the number of accidents on Highway 138, otherwise known as Blood Alley for its high number of fatalities. But she worries the project could bring zoning changes, noise pollution, and resident displacement. And like Hill, she doesn’t know who exactly who would use the new freeway. “I get it for Vegas, I do, but is there really that many people commuting from Hisperia to Antelope Valley for jobs?” she says. “I don’t see it.”

Among the highway’s fiercest opponents is the non-profit environmental group Climate Resolve, which filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that the project’s environmental impact report is flawed and that officials failed to fully analyze and disclose the project’s potential negative effects on health, wildlife, traffic, and noise. The case is expected to go to court this fall. “We think our transportation dollars should go towards improving mobility options, not doubling down on sprawl and car-dependence, which we know leaves our city in gridlock,” Climate Resolve’s associate director Bryn Lindblad wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s the opposite of smart growth, and it would prevent us from being able to realize our state mandated greenhouse gas reduction target.”

The case is expected to go to court this fall, and residents like Hill and Wucherpfennig are pinning their hopes on its success. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, we’ve been fighting this for 20 years so it’s not going to happen,” says Wucherpfennig. “Well, now they’re getting real about it. Now they’re getting funding and now is the time for us to jump in and say, ‘No, we don’t want this.’”