Coastal Voices: Is bringing bigger trucks on highway worth risk?

By Don Gillespie May 24, 2014 01:02 pm

Looking at the beautiful computer-generated picture of the proposed new Middle Fork Smith River Bridge on Highway 199 on the front page of the May 7 edition of the Triplicate, one might wonder why anyone would be opposed to the creation of such an impressive structure. What is not shown or told, which misleads the public on the real impact of this Caltrans project, are the 16,000 cubic yards of earth that are to be removed to widen a curve, exposing a huge cut creating soil erosion into our pristine Smith River. The current bridge has not been condemned from old age. The new bridge is primarily proposed to allow the largest STAA trucks to travel this narrow winding highway, creating increasingly unsafe industrial driving conditions for the common motorist on our Smith River scenic roadway.

Due to public interest organizations taking action to protect public safety and irreplaceable river resources, a federal court has now halted the highway-widening project. The injunction was a result of the judge’s ability to rapidly see that Caltrans has done very shoddy work in their analysis of the geologic instability and future soil erosion into the river, due to plans to create huge cuts on geologically unstable canyon soils. The Friends of Del Norte (FDN), the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), and the Center for Biological Diversity hired a nationally recognized fisheries biologist, Dr. Chris Frissell, to take a close look at the potential problems created not only during construction, but also in perpetuity for the proposed project. His is an integrated analysis of impacts of the project on Coho Salmon that Caltrans and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to complete. As Dr. Frissell states in his 145-page study, “Caltrans’ analysis of the impacts of each project location in isolation is misleading and at odds with reality.” The important cumulative impacts of these projects have been ignored by Caltrans officials. When presented with the evidence of the irreparable harm that the project represents to the Smith River, as well as the clear failings of Caltrans and NMFS to fulfill their responsibilities in the environmental review process, a federal judge was compelled to halt the project until the full case can be heard.

But just as importantly, this project has been halted because of the tremendous controversy about safety that numerous citizens expressed during the review process. The FDN hired a respected traffic engineer, Smith Engineering, and an experienced planning consultant, Mara Feeney, to analyze the traffic studies because Caltrans exempted themselves from their own safe design standards, taking extreme exemptions that jeopardize our safety. As revealed by Smith Engineering, instead of the recommended 4 feet, these projects will only provide STAA trucks one foot of clearance from oncoming traffic in a perfect line of travel around tight curves. There will be no fixes between Hiouchi and Gasquet, a stretch of Highway 199 that has a high accident rate and is the most heavily traveled by local residents.

Caltrans and local officials such as County Supervisor Michael Sullivan have responded that this injunction will cost the public “millions” of dollars. It is important to note that the cost of the injunction was one of the lines of defense of Caltrans, and the federal judge insisted on seeing the contract for the project. After that review the judge stated in his order granting the injunction that the issue of cost is one that the agency could not substantiate. That is to say, a federal judge in the ruling halting the project has already debunked what Caltrans and Mr. Sullivan rely upon as their public position regarding the injunction. The public is rapidly seeing through the public relations strategies of proponents of this highway development scheme that puts our way of life on the North Coast at risk.

Unfortunately, this ill-conceived Caltrans project has been encouraged by the “cheerleader mentality” of Del Norte County Supervisors who undervalue the economic importance of our salmon fisheries and have not been willing to push Caltrans to take the required ‘hard look’ at the impacts and ramification of this major highway expansion. Supervisor Sullivan and those who agree with him would like us to believe that this is all just a perfect plan; but we have been raising questions of risk to the environment and to the common motorist since 2008. Through ignoring our concerns, Caltrans wastes time and taxpayer money. This court decision is not only an important step in holding Caltrans accountable for the risks their project presents to the recovery of our salmon and to the safety of motorists on a nationally celebrated and one-of-its-kind scenic highway, it is an important step in holding Caltrans responsible for their waste of taxpayer money. 

It is now time for all of us to take a breath and ask ourselves, how important is it to bring these large STAA trucks onto our public highways? Is it really worth the risk and expense?

Don Gillespie is president of Friends of Del Norte.