By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Of the four options proposed to improve the most dangerous section of Highway 199, building a tunnel is the one Del Norte Local Transportation Commission (LTCO) will recommend to Caltrans.

The other three alternatives would make for significant road closures, said Mike Young, Crescent Citys Public Works Director, who sits on the commission.

There is one major draw back, though. At $105,000,000, constructing a tunnel would most likely never be funded, according to Caltrans report.

But we shouldnt rule it out because of the cost, said Susan Morrison, member of the transportation commission.

The area in question is a two mile section just north of Patrick Creek called the narrows. The lanes are only 12-feet wide there, with no shoulders. Its an area thats very prone to accidents and landslides, too.

A tunnel, if built, would cut a .75-mile-long hole straight through the mountain the present highway has to curve around.

All other options propose to add width to the present road. One of those alternatives would cut into the mountain to add space. Another would do spot fixes where the road is most narrow. The third would build width out toward the Smith River side, using viaduct supports the whole length of the two-mile stretch.

Caltrans descriptions of these three widening alternatives show each will cause lengthy road closures over the several months it would take to complete the project.

There are public costs involved in all the closures. Its a hidden cost we cant see, Young said, as he described how delays would disrupt the transport of goods and services between the coast and I-5.

Building a tunnel, however, would cause virtually no delays, according to Morrison and the description written by Caltrans.

Morrison said she recommends the tunnel because it has the least environmental impact, it would be the safest route, it would add bicycle lanes on each side and would remove the impact of traffic along that section of the Smith River.

Guy Luther, an official at Caltrans headquarters, said money for the narrows project, no matter which of the four options is chosen, will come out of the year 2007 -2008 budget.

And 75 percent of that budget usually goes to local transportation commissions for local road maintenance, Luther said. Because of that, it will be difficult even to pay for the least expensive spot-fix option marked at $25,000,000, he said.

But something will need to be done to make Hwy. 199 safer. Built in the early 1920s, the curvy, narrow lanes are not sufficient for modern recreational vehicles and commercial trucks, according to studies done by Caltrans and LTCO.

Trucks must also cross the centerline to avoid scraping their trailers against the steep rock faces or guardrail while negotiating the tight curves, reads the project study report.

Between April, 1997 and March, 2000, 28 collisions occurred in the narrows section of Hwy. 199. None of those were due to alcohol consumption, according to Caltrans data.

The start date for whichever option is chosen will be no sooner than 2007 and may take two years or more to complete.

Because the Del Norte LTCO agreed yesterday to send their recommendation to Caltrans, the project will be able to move to the next step in the process.

Luther said that step is for Caltrans to consider LTCOs advice, then prepare the chosen option as a candidate for the 2007 budget.

More public hearings will be scheduled as the process moves forward. Morrison said she will ask Caltrans to provide the project study report to the public at those meetings.