Laura Jo Welter, The Triplicate

The lengthy process of rerouting a relatively short length of road is just getting underway as possible route alternatives to the section of Highway 101 known as Last Chance Grade are considered.

Public meetings hosted by Caltrans, the Yurok Tribe, Smith River Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service were held in Crescent City, Eureka and Klamath this week to solicit community input for the Last Chance Grade Feasibility Study.

Community members looked over 14 possible alternatives with price tags ranging from $210 million to $1 billion, the most expensive route being one that is 15.1 miles long and swings east at Wilson Creek Road, heading through cultural resources, riparian habitats and young and mature redwood forests to bypass the grade completely before reconnecting withthe highway's current route at Hamilton Road.

A more conservative project involves constructing 3.3 miles of road in three years through an acre each of old growth redwood forest and riparian zone and 54 acres of young redwood forest and a proposed 2,010-foot tunnel, with a projected cost of $340-460 million.

Caltrans representatives said they're also looking at putting in a mile-long tunnel behind the slide that would avoid impacting old growth redwoods, an option that had been disregarded in years past because of cost.

Still, there's the option of maintaining the current route indefinitely.

The community seems united in its desire for a safe, viable option to get the project moving as quickly as possible - this was brought up more than once at the meetings.

"There's one resounding message," Del Norte County Supervisor Roger Gitlin said at the Crescent City meeting. "We have to act now. It's not 'if' it falls, but 'when.' We need to be proactive."

Crescent City real estate agent and member of the citizens' advisory committee Kurt Stremberg agreed: "Everybody feels the same way," he told the Triplicate on Tuesday. "We need to move forward."

Stremberg said that the longer the project waits, the more expensive it's going to get.

And it already has been expensive. In the past 34 years, $36 million has been spent on maintaining the 3andfrac12;-mile section of highway that is slipping into the ocean, a figure that doesn'taccount for inflation, said Talitha Hodgson, Last Chance Grade project manager for Caltrans.

Using a strain gauge, Caltrans survey crews have documented that in the past 14 months, Last Chance Grade has dropped 8 inches in elevation, moving 11 inches toward the ocean on the north end, and on the south end it has sunk 3 inches, moving 4 inches toward the ocean. The road has moved 50 feet since the 1930s, Hodgson said in her portion of the presentation.

When high-priority projects are already looking at costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the discussion moved to how to balance everyone's interests, Hodgson said.

"We want to select a project that will get the broadest support for the most supportable cost," Hodgson said.

The range of public opinion expressed at the meetings mirrored the range of alternate routes: not one of the options stood out as a community favorite.

In addition to the question of impact on resources, concerns were raised about the smoothness of the route chosen, the pleasantness of the view, and how many lanes of traffic there would be.

Hodgson had answers to a few of these concerns. Being a rural route over steep terrain, the project is limited to two lanes, with passing lanes, and an 8-foot shoulder to accommodate bicyclists, she said.

Jeff Bomke, state parks superintendent of Redwood National and State Parks, said that any alternative, even maintaining Last Chance Grade's current alignment, will impact the parks' resources.

"This is a nice opportunity to talk with an open dialogue," he said.

Jason Meyer, environmental coordinator for Caltrans, said in his portion of the presentation that the partners have included routes that deviate from the current route at Wilson Creek in case others should prove not to be viable after geotechnical surveys are taken - these routes head through a culturally sensitive area, which is to be avoided.

"There's no question in my mind that if geotechnical surveys confirm that it will work, a tunnel is a great opportunity to not have the impact on all those resources," Grant Werschkull, executive director for the Smith River Alliance, told the Triplicate on Wednesday, speaking of the tribes' cultural resources as well as old growth redwoods, wild rivers and salmon habitat.

Werschkull said it was much too early to say which option was best, but this "was a great first step" in the planning process.

"There's a lot of substantive work to be done as far as analysis," he said, finding out whether a tunnel would be secure in a major earthquake being just an example.

To that end, the feasibility study will be finalized in June 2015, at which point the partners plan to refine the alternatives before plunging into the next phase, the Project Study Report, to be completed in July 2016.

Only then will they begin to seek funding to complete the mandated environmental document so a route can be selected.

Caltrans will be able to start construction in 2andndash;6andfrac12; years, depending on the project that's selected.

Redwood National Park superintendent Steve Prokop reflected on the Crescent City meeting: "I felt that the Del Norte community is really unified in wanting an expedited project that also takes into consideration the iconic old growth redwood forest and the economic devastation (of a full closure)."

An economic impact study requested by the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission has been completed and will be posted on the Last Chance Grade project page of Caltrans' website in February. Considering the 4,000 jobs and $130 million in annual wages that would be lost in Del Norte County in the event of a full closure, the study found the Last Chance Grade project to be a sound investment, whatever its cost turns out to be.

Congressman Jared Huffman, state Sen. Mike McGuire and the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors have all expressed that the project is a priority and that they'll do what they can to help acquire the funding for it.

Answers to frequently asked questions and reports will be posted todot.ca.gov/dist1/d1projects/last_chance_grade/as they are completed.

Reach Laura Jo Welter at lwelter@triplicate.com .

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