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Crews work on the edge

What you don’t see from the road: Workers drill horizontally into the mountainside at Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101.
What you don’t see from the road: Workers drill horizontally into the mountainside at Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101. Photo courtesy of Caltrans
As workers continue repairs on U.S. Highway 101, Caltrans is preparing a feasibility study that focuses on finding a long-term solution to the slippery slope called Last Chance Grade.

Motorists traveling between Crescent City and Klamath have experienced one-way controlled traffic at Last Chance Grade for months while Caltrans workers repair and strengthen a retaining wall. Most travelers see concrete barriers when they drive by, but much of the work is happening over the cliff below the roadway.

Work includes drilling horizontally into the mountain in an effort to shore up the retaining wall, according to a Caltrans press release. Drilling is expected to be finished in October. Project completion is estimated for late fall.

Meanwhile, Caltrans engineers are in the middle of their study. Once finished, it will be used to identify improvement projects that will allow Caltrans to compete for funding.

“We are excited to have an opportunity to take a closer look at this section of Route 101,” said Bruce Mettam, deputy district director for planning and assistance, in a written statement Wednesday. “We look forward to receiving public input and ideas as the study progresses.”

Caltrans’ study will evaluate options for Last Chance Grade and potentially come up with a viable solution to the problems that stretch of highway poses, said Tamera Leighton, executive director of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission. But this isn’t the first Caltrans study of Last Chance Grade, she said. 

Caltrans performed a “value analysis” about 13 years ago that focused on the feasibility of creating a bypass around the landslide, including putting in a tunnel, Leighton said. That study concluded that the most viable solution would be to connect the top end of Last Chance Grade to the bottom end near Wilson Creek and follow a path similar to the current one, she said.

Dirt is excavated in June at Last Chance Grade to install retaining wall boards and prepare for horizontal drilling.
Dirt is excavated in June at Last Chance Grade to install retaining wall boards and prepare for horizontal drilling. Photo courtesy of Caltrans
“It would essentially rebuild on that general alignment,” Leighton said, referring to the current road. “That’s what they chose to do and it’s not working. The slide is so big and deep into the mountainside, there’s no obvious work-around.”

In March, Leighton said one of the obstacles to getting a more permanent fix to Last Chance Grade is the fact that the road hasn’t failed completely. This is still the case, she said Wednesday. In another slide-prone area of Highway 101, Confusion Hill in Mendocino County, years of repeated road closures due to mudslides resulted in an emergency project to bypass the slide using two bridges over the Eel River, Leighton said. 

Last Chance Grade hasn’t reached that point yet, she said.

“The road has essentially remained open even though it has failed,” she said. “But a one-lane signalized road on a national highway is not a success, it’s a failure, but it has not fully failed.”

Leighton said she has requested direct participation in the Caltrans study, but she’s not yet sure how she will be participating. She added that she has been invited to speak about the importance of the Last Chance Grade project to the California Transportation Commission.

“There are some people in the state of California who can’t even believe that this is the 101 because we are so different from the rest of California,” she said, adding that many commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, are more concerned with urban transportation issues. “They also don’t really understand having only one road. There is no alternate. There’s not even a dirt road. That’s very hard for the rest of the state to understand.”

According to a geology study from 2000, there are 200 active slides in the Last Chance Grade area, Mettam said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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