The environmental review process for a highway improvement project on Routes 199 and 197 has reached its final stages, but opponents say the improvements will not go far enough to warrant allowing longer trucks on the precarious paths.
Members of Friends of Del Norte, a local nonprofit conservation group, said they support improvements that will straighten and widen seven tight spots on 199 and 197, but that opening the routes to STAA traffic — trucks with no overall length limit — will negate any safety improvements made.
“(These) projects would improve highway motorist safety until the STAA trucks are invited in,” said Friends of Del Norte president Don Gillespie, adding that two recent semi-truck accidents, including one Friday, occurred on curves that aren’t even scheduled for improvements.
“Two wrecks in two weeks on curves that aren’t even meant to be improved — that just exemplifies our concerns,” Gillespie said. “The improvements by themselves may lead to safer driving, but you’re still going to have off-tracking. Adding more truck traffic and the larger trucks that tend to off-track will lead to more accidents.”
The truck that wrecked on 199 Friday was illegally using that route because it was too big, according to the California Highway Patrol. But such trucks would be allowed after the project is complete.
Making the improvements without opening up the routes for STAA trucks sounds nice in principle, but Caltrans officials said that without STAA access, there would not be the $26 million in funding for the project.
Kevin Church, Caltrans project manager for the “197/199 Safe STAA Access” pointed out that for years the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and the Del Norte County Local Transportation Commission identified STAA truck access as “their number one transportation need for Del Norte County.”
Tamera Leighton, executive director of the DNLTC, said that her commission and Del Norte county supervisors have always supported this project with unanimous consensus, unlike other state transportation projects like the Willits Bypass. Curry County even adopted a resolution supporting the project.
“We have broad-based support in a way that’s different from other communities with divided support,” Leighton said.
Members of Friends of Del Norte have said that the Transportation Commission and county supervisors have acted more like cheerleaders for this project without considering serious safety concerns.
1-foot margin of error
Friends of Del Norte and the Environmental Protection Information Center, an Arcata-based environmental group, hired a registered civil and traffic engineer with a long history of California transportation projects to conduct a technical study of the project. The study was submitted to Caltrans during the comment period of the environmental process.
The study by Smith Engineering & Management said that “The Project’s provisions are insufficient to authorize STAA trucks on the subject routes with reasonable safety to the public.”
The study makes note of several design exceptions to the Caltrans Design Manual that were made for the project in order to allow STAA access while deviating from Caltrans’ written guidelines for highways.
The exceptions include the size of shoulders, sharpness of curves, and shortness of stopping distances for areas with limited visibility.
One striking design exception is the amount of buffer space that a truck is given to make mistakes. On some curves, there would be only a 1-foot margin of error, the study states.
“...the facilities that would be provided by the Project require that the drivers of STAA trucks and other long vehicles select and maintain a virtually perfect line of travel through some curves to avoid crossing the centerline, running off the road, or otherwise striking a roadside obstruction,” the Smith Engineering study said.
Church, the Caltrans project manager, conceded there are spots with only 1-foot room for error, but he said that those exceptions were made in order to preserve the “beautiful scenic resources” of the Smith River Canyon.
“The solution that we have is a compromise. Are we going to provide less safety than a full-blown 8-foot shoulder throughout the project? Absolutely correct. Eight-foot shoulders would be a more forgiving driving experience for everyone, but would that make us more responsible stewards for the environment? Absolutely not,” Church said.
Church said his team “really didn’t want to change that driving experience” along the federally designated Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Smith River, so it worked to balance two divergent values: human transportation needs and the environmental and aesthetic values of the Smith River.
“We want to provide what we need to provide while minimizing environmental impacts so that we don’t change the character of that corridor,” Church said.
Safer than it is now
Caltrans’ official response in the final environmental review documents to Smith Engineering’s note of the 1-foot buffers for STAA trucks includes:
“At all project locations, the result of the proposed widening and alignment improvements will be that an STAA truck, with its greater size and swept width around curves, will have more maneuvering room than the smaller California Legal trucks presently have on the existing highway. The maneuvering room for any vehicle smaller than an STAA truck will be improved considerably.”
When Church was asked if this means that California-legal trucks currently have less than a 1-foot buffer, he said:
“In some places they do not. Have you ever sat out at the narrows for Patrick Creek? Trucks cross over the double yellow line in those locations so often that it’s not even funny,” Church said.
Friends of Del Norte and EPIC have also said that opening up 199 and 197 to STAA trucks has the capability of pulling more truck traffic travelling from Oregon to the Bay Area away from Interstate 5 — where there are mountainous, snowy passes that often require chains — to the relatively frost-free 199 to 197 to 101 route.
Local truck driver James Barrett submitted a letter to Caltrans about how truck drivers currently contemplate the decision on whether to chain up (a cold and laborious process) or wait until chain requirements are lifted. After this project is complete, truckers may skip the whole question, he said.
“I think it is a safe bet that every driver asked would answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘would you drive 44 miles out of your way to skip chaining your truck and trailer in the snow?’ especially when one factors in the lost time involved in chaining and driving the 30 mile per hour speed limit, which applies to all chained vehicles,” Barrett’s letter states.
Caltrans response in the final environmental document to the “Frost Free Coastal Route” predicament says that the narrow, winding route on U.S. 101 and U.S. 199 is not likely to be preferable to truck drivers when better routes, like Oregon Highway 126, are available to reach the coast.
“Thus if drivers were to bypass winter weather on a coastal route, U.S. 199 would not be the most favorable bypass route. Even so, the additional traffic associated with a winter weather diversion would be an occasional event, occurring only a few times a year,” the Caltrans response said.
The local political support is unwavering. Caltrans’ project is likely to forge ahead — although actual construction isn’t likely to begin until next spring — unless the environmental groups can muster a legal argument that their comments were not sufficiently addressed through the environmental process.
In the meantime, drive safe.