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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Lawsuit only way to get highway concerns addressed

For the past five years members of the Friends of Del Norte have been questioning the reasoning and environmental analysis behind the Caltrans highway widening project of highways 197 and 199.

We have been engaged on this issue by writing letters to the editor, to our congressmen, and the California Transportation Commission about our concerns, and by writing detailed comments to Caltrans regarding its quest to widen seven spot locations.

Caltrans states that the purpose of the project is to allow Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) trucks to enter our county along the highways, even though such unfettered oversize truck access runs contrary to shared goals of increasing traveler safety. This highly ill-conceived project has now been approved by Caltrans, which found “no significant impacts” through its Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Assessment process.

However, due to the inadequacy of the environmental review, many questions and concerns remain unanswered, forcing our organization to resort to legal action to protect all motorists and the Smith River, a nationally significant natural jewel.

We believe that our county supervisors and our Local Transportation Commissioners are doing a disservice to our community by never questioning the adverse impacts and lack of need, both economically and practically, for this project. This is especially true now since Highway 299, at Buckhorn Summit, is under construction to allow STAA trucks, thus creating an I-5 to Humboldt and Del Norte County access, and completely changing the context for justifying an STAA project in the Smith River Canyon.

Even if the project on Highway199 is completed as intended, these STAA trucks will still off-track into the oncoming traffic lane unless perfectly driven, as was illustrated by the Smith Engineering Report, commissioned by the Friends of Del Norte and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC, and provided to Caltrans during the public comment period on the project.

Will you feel safe driving Highway 199 with an extra 17 STAA trucks per day, rising to 70 per day by 2020, with only a 1-foot margin of error between you and these big trucks? Highway 199 is a precarious drive as is and widening the radius of five curves to increase traveling speed will not make this highway safe. Higher speed nationally equates to increased traffic accidents.

Caltrans has placed the cart before the horse. In 2007 it decided to access federal highway money available through the STA Act, and then added the word “safe” to their project goal to make it look good. We could make our highways safer without adding these STAA trucks through more traffic cushioning measures like slower speeds, rumble strips on sharp curves, and better signage, like has been done on Highway 101 from Crescent City to Wilson Creek.

As quoted in the May 4, Del Norte Triplicate article on this subject, “… Caltrans officials said that without STAA access, there would not be the $26 million of federal funding for the project.” So allowing STAA truck access is all about the money, not motorist safety.

The Caltrans traffic study is severely flawed as it makes no mention of the increased STAA truck traffic in winter conditions when Interstate 5 is closed at the Siskiyou Summit. Caltrans’ failure to evaluate the most obvious source of STAA traffic, Interstate 5, despite the fact that the project creates a new STAA route between I-5 and Crescent City, has fundamentally flawed the EIR/EA.

This also significantly raises concern for potential toxic spills into the Smith River and should be addressed in a new traffic study.

Cumulative impacts such as increased truck traffic over Last Chance Grade on Highway 101, which is slipping into the sea, has never been mentioned in the environmental review of the Caltrans Hwy. 199/197 STAA access project.

This project was ill-conceived from the start, in that Caltrans acknowledged that Highway 199 in its entirety will not accommodate STAA trucks. They must be rerouted over Highway 197, a road with over 70 driveways servicing 136 houses and hundreds of residents, school bus and mail stops.

Caltrans has never explained how it will direct STAA truck traffic around our National Heritage Site, Redwood National and State Park, from Highway 101 to the Hiouchi Bridge, the juncture with Highway 197.

This is a clear safety issue. How will north-bound truckers heading for Grants Pass, be convinced to travel five miles farther north on Highway 101 past the Highway 199 cutoff?

Severe off-tracking of truck trailers is an obvious and admitted concern for the unsuspecting driving public who consistently drive this winding stretch of Highway 199 through the park. This issue has never been addressed by Caltrans officials and is just one example of the inadequacy of the project design and review.

This general lack of concern by Caltrans and local elected officials, has forced our hand, and left us with no other recourse than taking our concerns to court. Circumstances and agency intransigence are such that the only way to get real answers to local citizen concerns at this juncture, is to take our concerns to the legal arena.

In this process Caltrans will have to give direct answers to our safety worries and environmental concerns on this important issue.

If you are concerned, write to Malcolm Dougherty, the Director of Caltrans, to intervene on the behalf of motorist safety. His address is: 1120 N St., Sacramento, CA 94273-0001. Or send him an email at: www.dot.ca.gov/mail.htm  

Don Gillespie is president of The Friends of Del Norte, P.O. Box 229, Gasquet, CA 95543.

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