Support for extensive highway project puts county board under fire
Passions flared during the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors meeting this week among both supporters and critics of a $38 million construction project on Highways 199 and 197 that is not underway this summer as scheduled due to an injunction granted in federal court in May at the request of local environmental groups.
The issue was at play due to a resolution the board unanimously passed endorsing the project, which would straighten and widen seven tight spots on highways 199 and 197, including replacing an 89-year-old, narrow bridge with an awkward approach over the Middle Fork Smith.
Members of Friends of Del Norte, plaintiffs in the lawsuit leading to the injunction, warned that access for longer trucks provided by the proposed project will make highways 199 and 197 unsafe, while representatives of large, local companies appeared before the County Board to express their support for the project.
"I'm in support of the process of upgrading and improving 199 - absolutely in favor of it," said Blake Alexandre of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms.
"I'd like to make sure we can maintain 199 in a safe and good manner," said Baird Rumiano, president of Rumiano Cheese Company, adding that he employs 50 people with an average salary of $48,000.
Alexandre said his support for the project does not stem from the need for longer trucks since his company will still have to transfer to smaller trucks to stay under the highway's 80,000-pound weight limit, which will not change if the project is completed. But he supports it because large trucks, referred to as STAA trucks, that would be given access to highways 199 and 197 by theproject are already frequently using those routes illegally and "we need to make it legal for them to get in and get out," he said.
There have been several occasions where STAA-driving truckers have been caught by the California Highway Patrol and Alexandre's shorter tractors came to bail out the law-breaking drivers and move their loads over to Highway 101. CHP could not provide statistics on truckers cited for over-length on Friday, but anecdotally it is known to be fairly common.
Don Gillespie, president of Friends of Del Norte, and several community members said that having STAA trucks on Highways 199 and 197 will make the road unsafe for motorists, possibly resulting in bigger truck spills into the Smith River.
"You can create safer highways without STAA trucks," said Gillespie, noting planned replacement of the Hardscrabble Creek Bridge on 199 without STAA funds as an example.
Maybe, but Del Norte County would be hard-pressed to get funding to complete the highway improvements in mind without STAA access, according to Kevin Church, the Caltrans project manager of the 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project.
"No STAA, no improvements," Church said.
Long trucks bring funding
"If I could do this with safety funds, I'd already be doing it," Church said, adding that a safety improvement was recently completed at the west end of the Middle Fork Gorge on Highway 199 after that was identified as an accident-prone area.
When a project is submitted to the California Transportation Commission for funding approval, it has to be attached to a "stated purpose and need," and for the 199/197 project that is access for STAA trucks, Church said.
"Goods movement and improving the STAA system is a fairly large priority for CTC from their perspective, and they are willing to fund it," Church said.
If, hypothetically, the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission had a change of mind and decided they wanted to make the same highway improvements but not add STAA access, first a whole new environmental analysis would be required (the cost for the last was $1.26 million) and then the project would have to come before the CTC again, with much slimmer funding prospects, Church said.
"All of these funds are competitive, and the number of hungry bird mouths far exceeds the number of worms," Church said.
This political reality isn't lost on county leaders who support the project.
"It's a safety project, and if the criteria is based on adding a couple feet onto a truck, then so be it if that is where the funding is," said Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan.
How long are the trucks?
The addition of STAA trucks would mean that trucks using highways 199 and 197 could be approximately 10 feet longer than the current overall length limit of 75 feet long for a truck pulling two trailers. The current overall length limit for a truck and single trailer is 65 feet.
Although opponents of the project have frequently pointed out that there is no overall length limit for STAA trucks, there is a maximum length limit of 53 feet for trailers and a kingpin-to-rear-axle limit of 40 feet, making the practical increase in how much longer a truck could be roughly 10 feet more than current trucks, Church said.
"The more normal amount would be 5 feet," he said.
More trucks/snowless detour
A traffic analysis commissioned by Caltrans for the project shows that STAA access would bring 17 more trucks per day over highways 199 and 197 almost immediately and 92 additional trucks per day by 2030, accounting for predicted regional growth.
But project opponents say that these numbers, which they consider significant already, underestimate the additional trucks that would be diverted from I-5.
A hypothetical trucker traveling from anywhere north of Grants Pass to the Bay Area might be inclined to use 199 and 197 to reach his destination via Highway 101 if the Siskiyou Summit on I-5 is closed due to snow.
Fat chance, said Church, who found that the Siskiyou Summit closes about five to 15 times per season for a maximum of three hours.
Google Maps says it takes just under 9 hours (467 miles) to reach San Francisco from Grants Pass using 199 and 101, while it takes just under 6 hours via I-5 and I-80, meaning it would be a wash, time-wise, even if a trucker was delayed by snow for a full three hours.
Add in the price of diesel and the prospect of diverted truck traffic becomes even less likely, Church said.
"You're the trucker and you have a choice: You can go have a cup of coffee or a bite to eat while you wait for the summit to re-open or you can spend an extra three hours on the road and spend extra fuel," Church said. "Any trucking company is going to make the cheaper decision in that regard."
The improvements to 199 are part of Del Norte County and Crescent City's long-term infrastructure goals for the area, and Kevin Hartwick, speaking on behalf of the council of economic advisers appointed by the local economic development authority, said that "the 199 project is incredibly important."
Chris Howard, future county supervisor and manager of Alexandre EcoDairy said that project "will have a significant economic impact on our businesses, including Alexandre Dairy and those future businesses that we have not yet realized here."
Howard also said that the ability to use longer trucks will mean Alexandre EcoDairy will be able to reduce loads carried into the county, which "reduces our environmental footprint and reduces the impact to the Smith River and our potential for an accident."
Eileen Cooper of Friends of Del Norte told the supervisors "that the financial benefits for this community to local constituents is very negligible," considering which companies responded in support of the project when Caltrans conducted surveys.
Friends of Del Norte frequently has said the fact that Home Depot and Walmart say they are fine with the current highways shows that STAA trucks aren't needed. But Caltrans' Church said that just because "Walmart and Home Depot were not interested in participating in the survey" that does not mean it wouldn't benefit those businesses and they may have chosen not to participate for other reasons.
Cooper said that with the "new information that has come forth during the environmental process to shed light on the true impacts of this project, many people, including some lily bulb users of that road, have stated that they have no interest in this project," but she would not disclose which bulb grower made this statement.
The current injunction is based on a federal judge's determination that there were inconsistencies in the consultation process between the National Marine Fisheries Service and Caltrans regarding impacts to the Smith River's coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
"(The court) cannot rubber-stamp a haphazard consultation process," Judge James Donato wrote in his order.
"We're addressing the court's concerns, and we are confident we can successfully address them," Church said.
Friends of Del Norte and the other plaintiffs of the lawsuit (Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity and Gasquet resident Ted Souza) hired a renowned fisheries biologist, specializing in the impacts of roadways on salmon and trout populations, who found that the cutslopes that are part of the project will cause sediment and toxic residue, on roadways from traffic, to enter the Smith River and harm salmon.
Church said that while sedimentation to the river is a valid point, the project addresses those concerns with catch dams and sediment traps that are designed to catch material before it enters the river.
Church questioned why the project would have received permits from three environmental regulators (National Marine Fisheries, the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) if there were valid discharge concerns.
"For all of (the regulators) to be sloppy all at the same time could happen, but it's highly improbable," Church said. "(Fisheries biologist Dr. Chris) Frissell was hired to produce an opinion contrary to our environmental document, and he did, and that's about all I can say."
While the environmental groups have maintained that the project will significantly harm the Smith River's coho salmon populations, supporters of the project say this is nothing more than a legal tactic and the real objection is to the STAA trucks.
"The objection is not to the impacts to the environment. We've covered those very well. The objection is to the trucks. All the rest is window dressings," Church said. "If the opening up of the route to STAA was legally and feasibly challengeable in the legal arena they would be doing it."
Tamera Leighton, Del Norte Local Transportation Commission director, told the county supervisors that the plaintiffs are using similar tactics that have been used in the region to prevent other projects, like the Willits
"It seems to be an environmental strategy to not win on the basis of the environment but to run us out of time and thus run us out of money," Leighton said.
Injunction costs millions
Flatiron Construction Corp., the company awarded the project, has notified Caltrans of a potential legal claim, saying that the delay in this project is costing the company an estimated $3.3 million.
Caltrans and the Del Norte transportation commission are also incurring staff and legal expenses as a result of the lawsuit.
On top of these funds, the commission is concerned that it may be at risk of permanently losing funding that must be used in a certain time frame.
Every year the commission is allocated a certain amount of funding from Caltrans for projects called State Transportation Improvement Program funding or STIP. Past, present and future funds ($19.42 million) have been allocated to the 199/197 project.
Those funds must be used by September 2016 or they'll go back to the state highway account, Church said. But a 20-month extension can be granted by the California Transportation Commission, meaning the funds wouldn't have to be used until March 2018.
"We have already met with CTC staff, and if we resolve this lawsuit then they will support the funding extension," said Church, who believes that his environmental team has worked diligently to address concerns related to the Smith River.
Church points to a signature arch bridge, which was supported by Friends of Del Norte members Gillespie and Souza and lobbied for to preserve the aesthetic qualities of the river -andensp;n uncommon and more expensive bridge for Caltrans.
"The Smith River canyon got the special treatment; it got something beautiful, got something extra," Church said. "That is something that really has been hidden by the ugliness of this lawsuit."
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.