Tony Reed
The Del Norte Triplicate

A week after state Sen. Mike McGuire and local officials toured a slip out that closed the southbound lane of U.S. 101 at Last Chance Grade, McGuire returned Friday for a similar visit.

This time, McGuire met with Del Norte County Supervisors Roger Gitlin and Gerry Hemmingsen, Crescent City Councilor Heidi Kime, Mayor Pro Tem Darrin Short, County CAO Jay Sarina and Caltrans Project Manager Jaime Matteoli.

For the most part, it was a question and answer session between local officials and Caltrans Major Damage Engineer Sebastian Cohen and Project Manager Karen Sanders.

Sanders explained that workers will be drilling about 120 piles to stabilize the roadway and will be later tying in horizontally to secure it to the mountainside.

A way around?

Cohen explained the Federal Emergency Relief (ER) program, only allows a damaged highway to be returned to its prior state, with no realignment or improvements.

However, Cohen and McGuire noted that in places like Devil’s Slide and Confusion Hill, a risk assessment that shows a highway can no longer be maintained in its current alignment, may be used to request ER Program funds for a new section of highway.

Cohen made the distinction between the Federal Highway Administration in California and the Washington D.C. FHWA, saying that for a bypass plan to be approved, it needs to be presented to the D.C. FHWA by the state FWHA. He said that while the state wants to do so, certain requirements must be met.

Cohen said the state FHWA came to the site last week, along with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans is examining ways to streamline the process of examining the roadway to see if it can or cannot, be maintained forever.

“Either way, we’re hoping to have that process this spring or summer, to get the team of experts together and have the analysis that proves we can’t do anything on this alignment,” Cohen said. “Then California FHWA will be willing to ask D.C. FHWA for the exception to the ER program and for the money. It would take an act of Congress because of the amount of money we’re talking about.”

He said the damage at mile marker 14.4 highlights the issues occurring on all three miles of the grade, and the need to get something done. He said later that Caltrans is collecting the date needed by state FHWA and communicating regularly in order to get the risk assessment done.

“We only have so many years,” he said. “We only have so many of these 100-foot slip outs that we can handle. Luckily, to date, they have only been minor, in terms of a couple hundred feet in length, but at some point, we are going to get one that’s bigger and we are going to have to close the road for a bit. We still feel, even if it was longer than the ones we’ve seen, we can get the road open in fairly short order.”

Cohen explained that in his four-county district, Caltrans has been able to reopen several blocked roads quickly. The difference is that on the grade, crews have to cut into a hillside in order to replace a lane if it’s fallen away. Cohen was confident it could be done and said some research has been done to examine areas that could be cut away if needed.

Since the grade is made up of four slide areas in a three-mile section of the highway, Cohen said settled landslides have been causing problems this winter.

Gitlin asked about the viability of keeping the current highway open, despite the slide activity underneath.

“What happens when the big one comes?” he asked. “I hate to put it that way, but can you predict it? The whole collapse of the mountain?”

“The mountain’s not going to collapse,” Cohen replied. “There’s always going to be a mountain here.”

“The face (of the mountain),” Gitlin interjected.

“There will always be something to carve back into and retreat into the hillside, and get the roadway open again.”

Asked by Gitlin if Caltrans had narrowed its list of seven alternative routes down to three, Cohen said that was not the case.

“You have to go through the environmental process,” Cohen said. “The NEPA (NAtional Environmental Policy Act) and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) processes to analyze all the impacts of each route. We’re required by Federal and State Law to go through a process, and that is what really drives our timeline, and we can’t start on that until we get funding.”

Listing the necessary studies, Cohen also noted that a bypass would run through a national park that contains old growth redwoods, and is identified as a world heritage site.

“Which we’re literally talking to the United Nations,” he said. “It’s a UN issue when you are impacting a world heritage site so the constraints and the uniqueness of the area we’re going to be impacting with all of our alignments that we tentatively have, they all have significant impacts and we are required to analyze the impacts on all of those.”

Noting the length of time needed to design and build a bridge on Highway 199, Cohen said some bridges take five years to get in place.

“How much money do we need and what’s the route?” Gitlin asked.

“We have to study it first,” Cohen replied.

McGuire said an option being discussed is for the state to fund the environmental documents to save some time. However, he noted that by the end of the month, statewide storm damage repairs will total close to a billion dollars for California. He said that as federal reimbursements come to the state for the storm damage, a portion could be used.

“Our most important next step is that we need to get a thumbs up from the feds, to advance the next portion of this and that’s narrowing down the alternatives, which means engineering and environmental (studies). Cohen explained that if Caltrans funds its own studies, it cannot apply for ER program funding.

“That’s where we’re trying to get them to interpret things a little differently,” he said.

Reach Tony Reed at treed@triplicate.com

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