Government agencies can do very little to make an environmental impact report entertaining.
Each study, hundreds of pages long, meticulously analyzes the possible effect of a major construction project on everything from endangered species to air quality. When printed out, the reports weigh enough to kill a small animal if dropped. And, aside from lawyers, engineers and advocates, few people read them voluntarily.
But this month, something felt different when Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority published a 1,316-page report on the High Desert Corridor, a proposed 63-mile freeway and rail link between the Antelope Valley and a fast-growing area of northwest San Bernardino County.
The contents of the report seemed normal enough. It was the cover that raised eyebrows.
Against an eye-watering marigold-and-purple background, two raptors with peace signs on their wings soared through the air on neon bicycles. Fireworks erupted near an acid-green tumbleweed. And, in the upper-right-hand corner, a tortoise with the word “Brad” etched on its shell chased a ground squirrel.
The real estate and urban planning blog Curbed LA wrote that it looked as if “someone’s kid made it with stickers.” “Brought to you by the state of California and LSD,” one writer quipped on Twitter.
A day later, the psychedelic cover had all but disappeared from the Caltrans website, replaced with a staid white page with black type. Agency spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said in an email that, after an inquiry from The Times, the public relations staff “discovered that it was not very legible. It’s that simple.”
“We don’t want people to discount the report,” Wonder said later. “This is a legal, professional document.” She said the designer, who is a Caltrans employee, did not want to be interviewed.
“This was an innovative project, and we wanted something that had real energy,” said Ronald Kosinski, the agency’s deputy district director for environmental planning, who supervised the designer. “We wanted people to notice the document and open it up.”
In contrast to Metro designs, which tend to be polished and impersonal, Caltrans covers sometimes show hints of flair: a superimposed S curves through the Santa Monica Mountains on the agency’s 405 Freeway widening study, and two dolphins appear on the iconic 101 Freeway sign in a report on the addition of carpool lanes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
But the kaleidoscopic cover left the others in the dust. Almost every animal and plant on the page was inspired by the nature of the area: tumbleweeds, desert roses, Swainson’s hawks, the Mojave ground squirrel. The two monarch butterflies were added simply because they “looked pretty,” Kosinski said, though he and the designer later figured that the choice could be relevant as well; monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains fly across California in the fall to spend their winters on the coast.
The desert tortoise was named for former San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, a champion of the High Desert Corridor project, Kosinski said. After six years in public office, he lost a primary election for a U.S. House seat in 2012.
“It’s really nice that someone thought of me,” said Mitzelfelt, reached by phone in Kentucky, where he now lives.
Protecting the desert tortoise, Mitzelfelt said, came up during every major project in his district. “I feel like I know the tortoise intimately,” he said.
The shout-out to a former colleague had seemed smaller during the design process, Kosinski said. “It was supposed to be a Where’s Waldo kind of thing,” he said, “but it turned out bigger than I expected.”
Residents and agencies have until Dec. 2 to read the document and submit public comments.
By the time the cover was posted online, it had already been mailed to 225 agencies and residents. Soon the report will be posted on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, trippy cover and all.
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