Though it has been a the subject of local concern and controversy for many years, the section of U.S. 101 known to locals as Last Chance Grade has risen to the top of local attention, due to the slide that closed the southbound lane at mile marker 14.4 Monday night.
A winter of near-record rainfall is affecting coastal mountain highways up and down the state and Last Chance Grade is no exception. By mid-February, the area reached the eighth wettest month on record.
From Highway 1 near Leggett to Highway 96 near Happy Camp and Hamburg, closures are forcing motorists to find alternate routes and rethink their commutes. However, it’s agreed that should Last Chance Grade fall away, the impact to Crescent City and the southern Oregon coast would be vastly more significant.
Since the rains began, local advocates and county supervisors have voiced their concerns that the grade, in whole or part, might fail, cutting Del Norte County off from the rest of the state and causing massive economic damage. The issue has been the subject of unending meetings, many of which examine the viability of bypassing the grade with a new highway.
Local policy makers disagree on what should be done but are consistent in their contention that something has to be done — and that it needs to happen sooner than later.
While a recent proposal by District 5 Supervisor Bob Berkowitz to garner a portion of President Trump’s promised $1 trillion in infrastructure repair funds was recently voted down, it would not helped with what is happening this winter.
No road tomorrow
Caltrans has been consistent in its contention that to bypass Last Chance Grade “by the book” would take a slew of environmental studies, botanical studies, geotechnical studies, wetland delineations, traffic studies and more, that would push construction of a bypass out to about 2031.
The full scope of the project, from Caltrans’ perspective, can be found at http://www.lastchancegrade.com/
Make the list
In a Feb. 7 letter from the governor’s office to Scott Pattison, CEO of the National Governor’s Association, a list of priority projects was identified for needed improvement around the state, representing more than 100 billion in targeted investments.
“Long term, this investment will have lasting, expansive economic benefits by moving goods and people faster, protecting vulnerable communities from flooding, bolstering emergency response capabilities, saving and storing more water, and improving energy reliability,” the letter said.
While it would seem to qualify on some of those those criteria, Last Chance Grade was not on the list.
A recent letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, from Congressman Jarred Huffman, state Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, asked that a Last Chance Grade bypass be placed on the list, calling it, in part, “essential to the safety and economic vitality of rural and disadvantaged communities and Indian tribes.”
“The project would realign U.S. Highway 101 just south of Crescent City at Last Chance Grade, a landslide-prone section of highway that, in the event of a failure, would devastate the Del Norte County community and radically alter travel along the California coast,” the letter reads. “Caltrans is actively engaged with the Federal Highways Administration in addressing the issue. In addition, there is an almost unprecedented effort to work collaboratively in identifying and building an alternative and reliable route around Last Chance Grade. A stakeholder group has been convened made up of representatives of county governments, tribes, environmental groups, landowners, business and transportation which agrees the project is necessary.”
The letter notes while Caltrans is working to address environmental and cultural concerns in advance, work needs to move ahead quickly in order to prepare the project for any eligible emergency relief program funding.
“Given the recent events at Oroville Dam, California has seen firsthand the risks associated with delaying critical work on endangered infrastructure projects,” the letter reads. “We must proactively address known threats to our communities. We appreciate all the work Caltrans has advanced to temporarily stabilize Last Chance Grade from slipping into the Pacific, but we now need to ensure the State meets the requirements from FHWA for eligibility and that in future efforts, Caltrans is able to secure real federal funding for projects in California and that you recognize the importance of the Last Chance Grade.”
Calls to Brown’s office resulted in a callback from Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesperson in Sacramento. Rocco said the letter was received by the governor’s office and a response is being prepared. Asked if Last Chance Grade had been moved onto the list, Rocco called it safe to say “no.”
A closer look
California Congressman Jared Huffman and Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio came to Crescent City in late October to hear a report as to the grade’s underlying condition and what Caltrans would do if the highway fails.
“We are dealing with two forms of slides,” Caltrans Transportation Engineer June James said, at the time. “There is one that I’ll call ‘the Mother Slide,’ which pretty much extends from the ridgetop all the way to the ocean, and some of our calculations have shown that this slide is about 260 feet deep. Obviously there is no structure that can stop that slide and keep our road in place. You also have to remember that the slide moves really, really slowly, and has been moving for a century or so.”
Of greater concern were a number of shallow landslides that continue to complicate the goal of keeping the road safe, she noted.
Caltrans Spokeswoman Talitha Hodgeson said in October that one recent study showed the highway had shifted westward 8.4 feet and down 6.9 feet in the past four years. Addressing the question of “what will happen if it goes tomorrow, what’s the plan?” Hodgeson said by all estimates, Caltrans should be able to keep at least one lane open to traffic. “We have a heck of alot more need than funding,” DeFazio said, at the October meeting. “This is a ‘must do’ project. There are a lot of things where we can patch it up but this one... you can’t just patch it up so I would assume it would get a high priority as we move forward and I’m sure your senators would too, but there’s a long queue.”
Social media watches
On the Caltrans District 1 Facebook page, many commenters expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s handling of Last Chance Grade. Several commenters asserted that Caltrans will do nothing other than patch the highway until it fails or someone gets hurt.
Caltrans’ Multimedia information officer Eli Rohl addressed those comments with a response online.
“We have a responsibility to keep you safe, and we have a responsibility to keep the road open for you to use,” he wrote. “These things are not mutually exclusive; we believe the road is safe for you to use, and we believe we can rebuild the road in this location. Slides are not unique in how they impact roadways — Last Chance Grade as a whole is unique in the challenges it poses for ongoing maintenance and the logistical challenges we face securing resources to build a realignment further inland. We are not waiting for anybody to be injured.”
Rohl said a bypass project is not opposed by any stakeholders or individuals.
“Congressman Jared Huffman brought several public and private entities together in his Last Chance Grade Stakeholder Group two years ago to help find agreeable solutions for all parties,” Rohl wrote, “and that work has been very successful in helping us find potential alignments that will preserve the rich ecology and cultural history of the area.”
“We have a plan to restabilize this hillside,” Rohl wrote. “We’ll try and get those details to you as soon as possible. This slide is part of the Last Chance Grade slide complex, but there hadn’t been much activity in this location until very recently.”
Rohl said Caltrans is working with the federal government to provide data about the area’s slide activity to Washington D.C.
“We have to prove that the current alignment of the highway is non-viable; to that end, the Federal Highway Administration’s geologists need to see that the slide activity is not stopping, and that there is no feasible fix to keep the roadway in place long-term,” he wrote. “While (Caltrans is) aware that Last Chance Grade needs to be bypassed, we still have to prove that to others.”
But what if?
The road has had numerous small-scale slides this year and Caltrans crews have been clearing, patching and repairing storm damage across the entire length of the grade.
Caltrans Public Information Officer Miles Cochrane spoke to concerns of what will happen in the short term, should a section of the highway collapse, causing a full closure. He said the answer, in most cases, would be a small detour, made by cutting into a hillside to create a single lane.
“People feel like they would be cut off for a long time,” he said, “but there is a very good potential that we would have it open in (one to three) weeks with one way control.” He spoke of a current, large scale slide on California 299 where Caltrans crews have created a temporary detour around the area while the slide is being cleared.
Cochrane said Caltrans will be able to deal with slides and maintenance until a bypass can be opened. Noting a Caltrans estimate that it could be as far away as 2031, Cochrane said that would actually be rather quick for a project of Last Chance Grade’s magnitude.
Addressing concerns the entire oceanside may someday fall into the Pacific, taking the highway with it, Cochrane said the above timeline would not exist if Caltrans has any indication or belief that the entire roadway would fail.
“There are quite a few experts in this field who believe we can maintain the current roadway until then,” he said.
Regarding the safety of Last Chance Grade as a whole, Cochrane said he has been asked the question many times. He said, from his perspective, a good rule of thumb is, “if it’s open, it’s safe to travel.” Cochrane said he has been working with experts for a long time and has witnessed the level of study and consideration going into such issues. He said he is confident enough in the road that he drives it regularly with his own child.