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Coastal Voices: Marine Highway worth a look

As a new resident to awe-inspiring Del Norte County, I must tell you what a refreshing change it is for my wife and I to be so blessed to live in this stunning geography.

Prior to moving to Crescent City, we traveled up the coast for over a decade to hike and enjoy that magnificent ocean and the majestic redwoods.

I do have one issue that really concerns me; it’s the roads and more specifically U.S. Highway 101 South. In 2005, I was traveling north on 101 and the road suddenly came to a halt near the junction with Highway 1 near Leggett. Apparently, there was one of those all-too-frequent rock/mudslides near Confusion Hill. The road would be closed for at least 48 hours. To “proceed north,” I needed to turn around, go back south on 101, east on 20, and north on 5, eventually reconnecting to 299. That detour put about six hours’ additional time to our already long journey.

No disrespect to the hard-working folks at Caltrans, but the sheer nature of Del Norte’s natural features often exceeds Caltrans’ Herculean efforts to keep the roads safe and clear. Weather is part of the North Coast, always has been and always will be. Rock and mud slides combined with vehicle traffic going too fast for conditions are a recipe for problems. What’s the alternative? Is there another option here?

There is another choice to ameliorate the challenges of Hwy. 101. It has been suggested we consider removing those big semi-truck trailers from 101 and making the highway automobiles-only. The freight and containers would take the short sea route on the Marine Highway.

The Marine Highway?

The Marine Highway System is already in operation and provides a necessary service along the Atlantic seaboard; the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast also support a marine highway system, which essentially parallels the nearest coastal inter-state highway.

I did some research and goggled “Marine Highway.” Up came the successful and sophisticated 40-plus-year-old ferry system that transports people and freight to road-less communities along the southern Alaska coast, serving small towns like Sitka, Ketchikan and Alaska’s capital, Juneau.

Additional research brought me to the website Marine Administration (marad.gov). MARAD is part of the Department of Transportation. The site revealed the proposed West Coast Marine Highway system to move freight via barges from San Diego to Port Angeles, Wash.

How would this proposed Marine Highway benefit the North Coast, especially Del Norte County? Could long haul freight operators opt to move merchandise off the hard-surfaced highways and onto barges for a more cost-efficient journey?

To learn more about the West Coast Marine Highway system, I chatted with both Richard Young, harbormaster of the Crescent City Harbor, and David Hull, CEO/ harbormaster in Eureka, and both told me about the plan to develop the West Coast Marine Highway through a public/ private partnership.  Back in October, an initial $275,000 federal grant was approved to ascertain the feasibility of the implementation of such a system.

The Marine Highway would relieve some of the I-5 corridor freight traffic. The Marine Highway could remove many big semis off the sometimes-treacherous 101, barge them up to the various ports along the route for local delivery. Passenger movement is not part of the upcoming study.

An economic shot in the arm of barge-moved containers coming into Crescent City’s harbor could provide a new center of commerce and unanticipated revenue and employment. The Crescent City Harbor Commission has already passed a resolution indicating its interest on the feasibility report, which would be submitted to Congress by the end of 2011.

The California Highway Patrol states Hwy. 101 is rarely closed for more than an hour for rock/mud slides or even serious or fatal accidents. Nonetheless, no one can dispute the challenges posed by nature Hwy. 101. The more relevant question would be, is Hwy. 101 safer if larger vehicles were afforded another transportation route?

It’s all about money. To be included in the new Marine Highway system, Crescent City may need to develop additional barge space. 

I am excited about the prospects of a West Coast Marine Highway.

With the continuing high cost of all the fossil fuels, I envision the Marine Highway playing a growing role along the North Coast. While the trucking industry’s leading cost is fuel, barge challenges will be in dealing with the heavy hand of local, county, state — including the California Coast Commission — and federal government, including the dreaded Environmental Protection Agency. Plus, currently all short sea vehicles (like barges) must be American-made. What a novel idea: An American product must be produced in the United States by American workers.

Here are some distinct advantages for implementation of the Marine Highway:

Marine Highways offer an alternative to over-worked and crowded inter-state highways.

There would be creation of local commerce/jobs.

Barges on the Marine Highway would not be subject to rock or mud slides.

Head-on collisions with semi-trailer vehicles would be non-existent.

The Marine Highway gives us something to ponder. Irrespective of any improvements to 101 South, I think it is vital to have a back-up plan which offers residents of the North Coast a choice in mode of freight transportation. I like the concept of the Marine Highway and I await the results from the study currently being conducted.

Roger Gitlin is a retired teacher and resident of Crescent City.

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