This week, I’ll have the unusual privilege of flying hundreds of feet over Last Chance Grade with my colleague Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
I wish I were bringing him to see a road that has been stabilized and is no longer under threat of sliding into the ocean. That’s not yet the case. But, fortunately, through the strong collaborative work over the past few years, we are much closer towards achieving a permanent solution to this problem than ever before.
Finding a way around Last Chance Grade south of Crescent City on U.S. 101 is one of the biggest challenges that the Del Norte community — and my congressional district — faces. It is a serious safety concern with a host of environmental components, and it won’t be easy to find the money in a Congress that has for many years now frowned on spending, even on crucial infrastructure projects.
We can’t shy away just because it’s difficult, and today, I know we are up to the challenge. Over the past three years, huge strides have been made to gather support, identify the project as essential and engage the state and federal agencies that would be involved in a rerouting of U.S. 101. To consolidate and expedite these efforts, I convened the Last Chance Grade Stakeholder Group, consisting of representatives of Del Norte County, Crescent City, landowners, tribes, environmentalists, community groups and others. These local advisors have played a critical role in demonstrating to Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration, and other agencies, that a new route would have broad support.
Caltrans has also convened all the appropriate agencies to help identify key issues that will need to be addressed. This is important: by talking with each other at this stage of the process, we can avoid bureaucratic hurdles later. The Federal Highway Administration is also taking this project seriously, sending technical staff to the area to evaluate the problem, and meeting repeatedly with Caltrans about the possibility of using Emergency Response funding now that Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency for roads in Del Norte County.
In short, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us. A project of this scale does not happen overnight, anywhere. Moving the road may cost $1 billion or more, and there are real technical issues that need to be addressed to ensure the geology along the chosen route can support a new stretch of highway. Also, it’s imperative to address the environmental challenges that are before us. The area in question is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Redwood National and State Parks with some of the biggest and oldest redwood trees in the world. The project has to be done right to minimize the effects of the new route on the environment, and that may take some time.
Knowing all of those challenges that lie ahead, it’s critical that we not wait decades just to get underway. This is going to continue to be a high priority: I’ll work with California Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood to ensure that Caltrans has the resources to keep Last Chance Grade open and safe in the short term, and that all the participants move the bigger project forward in the longer term.
Let’s unify our entire community in support of this important project, and strengthen that unity with the progress made in recent years.
Jared Huffman is the U.S. Representative for California’s 2nd congressional district, which includes Del Norte County.