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Hwy.’s trouble spot is costly

Pavement crumbles at the precipice of Last Chance Grade.
Pavement crumbles at the precipice of Last Chance Grade. Photo courtesy of Caltrans
Does it make sense to keep fixing Last Chance?

Caltrans should be finished with the latest round of repairs for Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101 south of Crescent City this summer, officials say.

But Del Norte County supervisors have brought up road realignment and say they want to find out how much money has been pumped into ongoing attempts to stabilize the slide on that stretch of highway. District 5 Supervisor David Finigan said he’s also fielded concerns from constituents who live south of Crescent City about the only road in and out of town.

“People in Klamath are tired of being stopped on a tenuous stretch of road that could slide,” he said, referring to the traffic signal that reduces the road to one lane near mile-marker 15. “Engineers say it’s sturdy, but it keeps sliding.”

The latest project is a soldier pile wall project designed to protect an existing wall that was built in 2009 and is now cracked, said Caltrans spokesman Scott Burger. The new wall will overlap the existing wall in an attempt to slow the slide at the north end of the project area, he said. 

The project is budgeted at $4.8 million and is expected to be finished by late summer, Burger said. Caltrans hopes to complete the project under budget, he said.

“The goal is to greatly reduce the need for maintenance in that area,” Burger said. 

Landslides have been a constant problem on Last Chance Grade, which hugs the cliffs of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. According to a landslide study performed by the California Geological Survey in 2000, scientists mapped over 200 slides in that area. But to reroute the road, Caltrans would need to conduct a feasibility study, and the environmental impacts of such a project would be a major factor in the study, Burger said.

Those impacts constitute a significant barrier to rerouting Highway 101 away the coast, said Tamera Leighton, executive director of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission. 

“We’ve done thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars of studies about a work-around one way or another,” she said. “The reality plainly spoken is we would never get out of the environmental phase of the project in order to be able to build it. The environmental impacts are too great for our community to stomach.”

For most Del Norte County residents, the concern regarding Last Chance Grade is not the current five- to 10-minute wait at the traffic signal, but the highway’s overall unreliability, Leighton said. The road is built on an active slide, and millions of dollars in federal storm damage money are spent there every year, Leighton said.

Another big hurdle to getting a more permanent fix is the fact that the road hasn’t failed completely, Leighton said. She referred to two bridges Caltrans built in 2009 to bypass a slide-prone area at the north end of Mendocino County called Confusion Hill. The slide there was so continuous and resulted in so many closures on Highway 101 that the federal government stepped demanded a fix, she said. 

“Caltrans could demonstrate that even though two bridges would be expensive, it would be less expensive than continuing to do what we’re having to now,” she said, adding that the road would be closed at Confusion Hill for two to three days at a time. “A five-minute delay because of a stop light and a total road closure are very different experiences for a community. Right now (Del Norte County) is experiencing unreliable infrastructure, but not completely closed. When you get to the completely closed level, you’re in a whole new game.” 

In the meantime, supervisors are communicating with Caltrans over the how much money has been spent on continuous road repairs at Last Chance Grade, District 3 Supervisor Mike Sullivan said at the Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 19 meeting.

“We’ve coined the phrase Confusion Hill II, there are so many slides,” Sullivan said, adding that he spoke with Caltrans District 1 Director Charlie Fielder about the money that has gone into repairs at Last Chance Grade. “It needs to be realigned and away from the coast there.”

Finigan said Last Chance Grade is more than an inconvenience, it’s a safety hazard. He added that aerial photos show the numerous times the road has been paved over.

“They need to re-look at it,” he said, referring to Caltrans. “Sooner or later that road is going to go.”

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