Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Things are moving faster than expected regarding the eventual rerouting of Last Chance Grade, according to a report Tuesday given Del Norte County supervisors by Caltrans Project Manager Jamie Matteoli.

Matteoli spoke of Geotechnical studies. They are needed to refine and validate alternate routes around the failing grade that have been selected by Caltrans.

“We know that there are historic slides where the project alternatives are intended to go so we need to study that area, drill holes and learn about the geology so that our geotechnical specialists can provide their opinion to the team and we can bring that back to design and refine things,” he said.

Matteoli said a plan is in place for Phase One drilling and Caltrans has completed the environmental process necessary to get the work cleared by the State.

“We expect to drill this summer,” he said, adding that 10 boring samples and six seismic refraction lines will be drilled.

“The results of those studies will be coming out this fall,” he said.

Phase two studies will take place in 2019, as they will take longer to get environmentally cleared and will involve vegetation clearing, he said.

Matteoli also noted $5 million in funding recently given to Caltrans by the California Transportation Commission to be used for biological studies, cultural resource studies and general studies.

At this year’s Del Norte Economic Summit, state Sen. Mike McGuire said he was notified that $5 million was secured to kick off the environmental review process for the alternate route around the slide-prone area of U.S. 101 south of Crescent City. This is in addition to another $5 million that came from the California Transportation Commission last year so Caltrans could start geotechnical studies on potential routes around the slide.

Matteoli said the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act studies will begin this fall.

“This is a project that’s not really a Caltrans project,” Matteoli said. “It’s a project that’s a big issue to the community and we need the entire community to help us solve this, so Caltrans is helping facilitate and provide the best information we can.”

Risk assessments

Matteoli said geotechnical studies are needed to assess the risks of each alternative route. They are also required by the Federal Highway Administration. He said a panel of five highly qualified geotechnical experts met on the site March 13-15 and are assessing the risks of each alternative.

Matteoli said stakeholder meetings involving tribal groups, land management companies, State and National Parks will take place in May and June.

Public meetings will take place sometime in July or August, he said.

Board response

Chairman Chris Howard said supervisors have been taking the issue of rerouting Last Chance Grade to state and federal legislators for some time. He thanked Matteoli for the presentation, saying, “It helps give a sense of transparency to the public about what’s going on with Last Chance Grade and I know there has been a lot of progress made here in the last couple weeks.”

Howard said the move to secure funding and start the work was out of sequence for Caltrans.

“This is a precedent-setting step for Caltrans to take that environmental work, fund it and get it started now, instead of us having to wait for the full dollar amount,” Howard said. “I’m very impressed by that move.”

Supervisor Lori Cowan agreed, saying such action has not been taken before.

“When we got the $5 million last year and we got the $5 million that was approved last week, it is being spent on these studies and that is not normal,” she said. “Normal (is when) the project is approved and then it goes out and that’s just an added timeframe.”

Cowan added that to date, no funding has been put toward anything related to the alternate routes around Last Chance Grade.

“All this has happened recently or in the last couple years and it’s a big step in moving forward,” she said, thanking Caltrans and staff for their work.

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said future studies can now keep moving forward without interruption, as long as funding sources are secured first.

“I have to thank Caltrans for keeping that road open,” he said. “That commitment has been made and kept and we are very appreciative of that, because whatever happens, that road has to be kept open until we have an alternative.”

Supervisor Roger Gitlin was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.

Current work

Regarding the grade itself, Matteoli said monitoring systems only detected a half-inch of movement this last year, in an area that typically sees more yearly movement. Referring to the area as “the ski jump,” Matteoli said crews plan to backfill the area soon to make the dip less dramatic. Walls there will be repaired or replaced, he said.

Matteoli spoke of a recent partnership with Crescent City, putting real time traffic cameras in the area and sending the signal wirelessly to an antenna located at the wastewater treatment facility.

“The signal strength wasn’t what we thought it would be,” he said, adding work is being done to add more relays to the system to improve the signal.

He said the Wilson Creek Wall is nearly complete but piles will be needed in an area to the south of the wall that will likely result in another stoplight this summer.

Matteoli also showed the board an aerial, three-dimensional model of the grade’s slide areas, generated by computer using many photos taken from a Coast Guard helicopter. Matteoli explained the models are precisely measured and can be compared to future models to determine exactly how much certain areas have moved and in what direction.

When asked by Supervisor Bob Berkowitz, former project manager Sebatian Cohen said drones could do the photography in the future for a much lower cost. Cohen now oversees all county Caltrans projects.

More information about the alternate routes and project schedule can be found online at http://www.lastchancegrade.com/

Reach Tony Reed at treed@triplicate.com

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