Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

While it won’t immediately shorten the expected completion date of 2039, the California Transportation Commission has approved $45 million for necessary environmental studies to build a highway bypass around Last Chance Grade.

At a meeting Thursday in Los Angeles, Transportation Commission Engineer Chris Traina explained that U.S. 101 has been progressively shifting westward and downward, due to storm events and earth movements. “The roadway has shifted horizontally by 50 feet in some sections,” he said.

Traina explained a number of alternative routes have been determined, ranging in cost from $300 million to $1.1 billion.

“Caltrans is requesting these funds to move the environmental and geotechnical studies on the project forward and evaluate the proposed alignments to meet the scheduled environmental document date in 2026,” Traina said, adding commission staff recommended approval and would request semi-annual updates from Caltrans.

Assemblymember Jim Wood and Congressman Jared Huffman, in partnership with Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission (CTC), announced that $40 million in funding to complete the environmental review and evaluate each of the potential routes and ultimately decide on a preferred route alternative.

“This project will make Highway 101’s Last Chance Grade a reliable route for North Coast communities for generations to come, and today’s allocation brings the total new state investment for a permanent fix to Last Chance Grade to $50 million,” according to a release from the state legislature. A $10 million geotechnical investigation is underway, and $5 million had already been allocated. The additional $5 million pays for the remainder of the study.

Local concerns

Del Norte County Supervisor Chair Lori Cowan explained how failures on the grade isolate Crescent City from the rest of the state and Klamath from the rest of the county.

Cowan said the route sees kids to school, sporting events and other educational activities, and families often travel to Eureka, Santa Rosa and beyond for medical care treatment.

“It’s a lifeline to our community,” Cowan said, noting she hopes to see the list of alternative routes narrowed to the most viable ones.

Cowan explained while the drive to Klamath takes 20 minutes, the drive around it takes up to eight hours.

“Caltrans has spent $85 million from 1997 to 2017 and has done an admirable job of keeping the highway open, or in place. However, the highway continues to fail and traffic is regularly limited to one lane or is completely closed due to landslides, like just a few weeks ago,” Cowan said. “The consensus opinion of the Stakeholder Group agencies is there needs to be an alternate route that avoids the landslides.

“If Last Chance Grade was to fail completely,” Cowan said, “it would be devastating to Del Norte County with a loss of over $1.5 billion for regional businesses annually, and losses would also impact Humboldt County, Southern Oregon and beyond.”

Citing a regional impact analysis released in May 2018, Supervisor Chris Howard compared the costs of the project to the potential impacts of delaying it.

“We recognize that a $45 million request for the environmental phase is significant, but it’s an economic savings when considering a full closure of U.S. Highway 101 at Last Chance Grade which will create an annual loss of over $1.5 billion just for our regional businesses,” Howard said. “The impacts of a closure are so great because there is no reasonable alternative. It’s not one or two additional hours of travel time; it’s six to eight additional hours depending on your destination. The additional distance is estimated to increase travel costs annually by $236 million.”

Howard said a full closure could also result in lost jobs and changes in supply chains, costing $145 million in labor income and $456 million in local business sales.

“The job loss represents 30 percent of the total jobs in my county,” he said.

Howard added many businesses like Alexandre Dairy, of which he is the general manager, rely on the road to move product every day and would not be able to sustain a closure that would result in a 320-mile detour around the grade.

“Our community cannot afford any setbacks such as that we’ve had with our east/west connector of Highway 199 that has been held hostage in litigation for the past decade,” Howard said.

Tamera Leighton, executive director of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission, brought 38 pages of support letters, saying more came in after the deadline for submission.

“We have a region willing to work with Caltrans to see this project through,” Leighton said, “Including groups that are often at odds with, and in litigation with, Caltrans.

“While the production of over $50 million in environmental documents is not a quick and nimble process, I am certain that if we accelerate the proposed timeline for the environmental work, we’ll risk the existing support of organizations that are often at odds with Caltrans and regional economic goals,” Leighton said, adding a forced early completion of those documents would not benefit the stakeholders group.

Stakeholder group member Kurt Stremberg, who lost his parents to a collapse of the roadway in 1972, called it great the funding will at least allow the bypass to reach its next step.

“I think really it’s just simply we finally get to see the funding to start and complete the environmental studies, the CEQA and NEPA to satisfy state and federal side as far as potential bypass locations, which is going to be the most environmentally, least environmentally impacting,” Stremberg said. “It’s great to hear, got a long way to go to see it through as far as the studies are concerned, they’re not a short-term situation, it’s good that they’re going to take place.”

Del Norte Unified School District Information Officer Michael Hawkins noted by phone Friday the grade has been causing logistical issues for a long time.

“We are so glad to be one step closer to a solution to a problem that has been recently causing hazards and interrupting education,” Hawkins said.

“We are grateful for the support offered by the community on this issue, it has been key in expediting the process of funding the environmental impact study to find an alternate route for Highway 101 that can replace Last Chance Grade,” said School District Superintendent Jeff Harris.

Make it faster

“I remember looking at the scheduled completion date projected at this time is 2039, which seems a little long for me,” transportation Commissioner Jim Ghielmetti commented during the CTC meeting. “I hope we can expedite this because I will be 93 years old by that time, and I’d like to see it completed.”

Caltrans District 1 Director Matt Brady said Caltrans staff will work to complete project phases ahead of schedule.

Commissioner Paul Van Konynenburg added he would also like to see the project expedited, adding the commission will attend a Del Norte County town hall meeting Nov. 6 and he wants to see a firmer schedule on how the project can be completed sooner.

“For something we’ve known needed to be done for a long time, the fact that we would have to wait till 2019 to see the fruition of this seems too long,” he said.

Brady replied that Caltrans also wants to shorten timelines and create a turn-key project with a consultant to narrow the size and scope of the project. Van Konynenburg replied that while environmental and seismic issues will complicate the project, he is also aware that the surrounding communities want a bypass as soon as possible.

“We do as well,” Brady said.

State response

At the state level, northern California legislators were quick to chime in following CTC approval.

“We all made a commitment four years ago to get the job done with the Last Chance Grade and today’s vote moves the project forward, more than ever before in history,” state Sen. McGuire said in a release. “We have been grateful to partner with Assemblymember Wood, Congressman Huffman, the Del Norte Board of Supervisors, Crescent City Council, the California Transportation Commission and Caltrans on this critical project. This is a true testament of what can be accomplished when we all work together for the North Coast.”

Huffman called the decision big news for the traveling public.

“This funding will be instrumental in helping to find a new, durable route at Last Chance Grade, which will reflect both safety and environmental concerns. After working with Senator McGuire and Assemblymember Wood, my Last Chance Grade Stakeholder Group, and requesting this financial support, I’m glad to see how momentum on the project has ramped up over the past few years and that we are taking major steps towards a permanent solution,” Huffman said.

Caltrans Director Laurie Berman noted the importance of U.S. 101 to residents, businesses and freight haulers, saying it will ensure the highway remains reliable for future generations.