How many chances?

Written by Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate August 17, 2012 06:17 pm

More repairs for sensitive spot on 101

 A worker inspects the damage from a March storm at mile marker 15 of the Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101. Courtesy of Caltrans
A worker inspects the damage from a March storm at mile marker 15 of the Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101. Courtesy of Caltrans
Another round of repairs is planned for the Last Chance Grade on U.S. Highway 101 south of Crescent City, Del Norte County Transportation Commissioners were told last week.

Travelers might know this spot for its stunning overlook of the Pacific. This year, even those who didn’t stop at the high-rise turnout around mile marker 15 were treated to leisurely views after a March storm reduced traffic to one cliff-hugging lane. 

Meanwhile, engineers like Caltrans’ Talitha Hodgson know Last Chance Grade as an inherently unstable place to maintain vital infrastructure. And Del Norte County residents know it as an especially narrow spot on the only road in and out of Crescent City from the south.

Local transportation commissioners wanted to know: How many more chances does Last Chance Grade get, before the highway is rerouted away from the sliding cliffs? 

Currently, Caltrans is repaving as needed and plans to build at least two new walls at the edge of the escarpments over the next seven years, Hodgson said during her Thursday report to commissioners.

The estimated cost for the projects is $18 million to $21 million, to be funded through the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program. 

The last couple of storm seasons wrought major damage, revealing “the full extent of the failure” on sections of the road that shifted as much as 2 feet, she said. 

In 2009, $7.2 million in new walls were built to stave off nature’s destructive forces.

Hodgson presented a photograph of one of those new walls to commissioners, its cement cracked from top to bottom. 

“These walls are riding down the hill. We know they are going to be moving down the hill even as we do this,” she said. 

“The projects you are talking about are band-aids,” said county Supervisor and Transportation Commissioner Mike Sullivan. “This is a brand new wall that cracked. What’s the answer?” 

“Our alternatives are pretty limited,” Hodgson said. “It’s going to take us not being able to maintain the roadway to go in that direction.”

“That direction” being east, into old growth redwood country. 

“Many alternative routes have been studied in the past but all were rejected due to very high capital costs and the large number of redwood trees that would need to be removed,” Caltrans spokesman Scott Burger said Monday.

“The last exhaustive cost analysis of alternatives to maintain traffic on Highway 101 was performed in 1992. Caltrans is currently accumulating historic data on maintenance and restoration costs to determine the most economical and realistic approach to maintaining traffic through the route,” Burger said.

He said an estimated $39 million in emergency projects, (mostly funded by federal programs), have been identified for 2012 in Caltrans’ District 1, which includes Mendocino, Humboldt, Lake and Del Norte counties. More than half of the district-wide allotment could go toward keeping Last Chance Grade from slipping seaward. 

“Ultimately, we are not going to cut Crescent City off,” Hodgson told the transportation commissioners.

Sullivan responded: “Well, hopefully you’re not telling us that as we are getting cut off.”

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