By Jessica Cejmar

In response to a question from former supervisor Chuck Blackburn, Caltrans’ Jaime Matteoli said if there were a major failure of U.S. 101 at Last Chance Grade, construction crews would have a path cleared for traffic within weeks at the most.

But even after a pullout area at the south end of Last Chance Grade fell away in March, geotechnical experts with the Federal Highway Administration and other consultants inspected the project this summer and concluded that the slide did not pose a serious safety risk to the traveling public, the Last Chance Grade project manager said.

“They look at slides up and down the State of California and in various places around the world, and they acknowledge this slide’s been moving slowly and steadily,” Matteoli said Wednesday. “There have been localized slides that have occurred. Over the years we’ve improved our capacity to monitor and respond to movement. We’ve also increased the strength and resilience of the route with the number of retaining walls that we put up and those really do the work of holding the road together.”

Matteoli led a town hall meeting Wednesday that included input from representatives of Redwood National Park, the California State Park System, the Federal Highway Administration, a representative from Congressman Jared Huffman’s office and Chris Howard, chair of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.

During the meeting, Matteoli spoke to the status of the current alignment, including the beating it took as a result of the rains in 2016 and 2017 and how much funding has been earmarked to repair the damage.

Matteoli’s presentation also focused on the progress made toward getting a permanent solution to Last Chance Grade. There are six possible alignments being considered, costing between $300 million and $1.2 billion to construct along with a “no-build” alternative, which would leave the road where it is. According to Matteoli, all six alignments involve structures including three tunnels and multiple bridges.

Earlier this year the California Transportation Commission approved $5 million to do geotechnical studies on the six possible alignments, Matteoli said. The geotechnical analysis is expected to be completed in fall 2018.

Meanwhile an expert risk-based assessment, which consists of geotechnical experts independent of Caltrans examining the six alignments, is expected to be finished by February, Matteoli said.

Storm-related damage

Caltrans has approval to spend up to $35 million to repair the damage wrought by storms in 2016 and 2017, Matteoli said. Of that $35 million, $27 million is expected to be used for construction.

The entire slide moves about 2 inches a year, Matteoli said. The area toward the south of the grade, near the Wilson Creek wall, has moved about three inches since 2012. Farther north, the southern Last Chance Grade slide has moved about a foot, and the northern Last Chance Grade slide has moved vertically about 9 feet, Matteoli said.

“It’s important to acknowledge that while the area has moved 9 feet, the road has been open to traffic throughout that whole time,” he said. “We go out and we pave the low spots and we’ve been grinding the high spots.”

On March 6, 2017, a failure of the Wilson Creek wall caused the shoulder and part of the southbound lane near mile marker 14.42 of U.S. 101 to collapse. The highway lost about 10 feet of width, although the drivable area of the southbound lane had not fully collapsed.

Caltrans crews began noticing cracking in the road near the wall in February, Matteoli said Wednesday. The agency decided to pave it, but the cracks persisted. According to Matteoli, Caltrans paved the area three to four times before Sebastian Cohen, who’s in charge of storm damage for all Caltrans District 1 projects, inspected the area and determined that the southbound lane should be shut down.

“He was able to make a prediction on where we would see the failure, but it was moving slowly enough,” Matteoli said. “We closed the lane, we informed the public, we put out a picture and Facebook post and ultimately we watched the slide as it failed and fell down the hill and came to a rest. There’s a video of it on You Tube actually.”

Caltrans crews continue to put steel piles for a new retaining wall at the Wilson Creek wall area. Matteoli said the project will continue through the season.

Farther north, Caltrans crews continue making repairs to two temporary retaining walls that had been constructed in response to storm damage from 2011, Matteoli said. This year, Caltrans crews observed cracking to the north and south of one wall and are hoping to extend it to the south and the north. Caltrans extended another wall from 110 feet to about 140 feet, Matteoli said.

A third wall sits between two of the area’s most active slides and since each is moving at different rates, the wall is dividing, Matteoli said.

Matteoli noted that Caltrans can measure movement in “near-real time” and can alert the public immediately if major activity occurs.

Building a bypass

One obstacle toward getting a bypass constructed around Last Chance Grade is finding the money to pay for it. Another is getting through a lengthy environmental review process.

During the town hall, Matt Schmitz, director of project delivery for the Federal Highway Administration’s California division, said the state gets almost $4 billion a year in Federal HIghway Administration dollars, but it’s not up to the administration to choose which projects to fund.

“Our role is to ensure that the projects that are selected are eligible for federal funds if the state were to use federal funds either on the current alignment or elsewhere,” he said.

Schmitz also spoke about emergency relief funding, a Congressionally appropriated program that consists of $100 million a year. In California $10 million in emergency relief funding went toward fixing $1.5 billion worth of damage due to the winter storms, Schmitz said.

About $80 million in emergency relief funds went to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to help them rebuild after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, he said.

“The emergency relief funding we put towards the existing (Last Chance Grade) alignment has been about $40 million in the last 25 years; it doesn’t cover all the damage that’s happened,” he said. “The emergency relief funding, even if it were there for an alternative alignment — a new alignment to the east — the program doesn’t allow for extensive realignment like that.”

About $75,000 in emergency relief funding has helped pay for the expert risk-based assessment, Schmitz said

At the state level, Matteoli said Caltrans would propose partially funding the environmental review phase of the Last Chance Grade bypass project. This approach to funding a project follows the passing of State Senate Bill 1, which would set aside $200 million to fund road maintenance and rehabilitation projects.

Matteoli said Caltrans would submit that proposal to the California Transportation Commission in the spring of 2018. Getting through the environmental review process could take 5 to 9 years, he said.

“A lot of folks have asked what the project schedule is,” Matteoli said. “Right now, we haven’t begun the environmental (process) and the project schedule we publish in the project study report hasn’t begun. We’re not really on that schedule yet.”

Matteoli said the Last Chance Grade biological working group, which consists of national and state parks officials as well as a cultural resources group consisting of tribal representatives will help get the project through the environmental review stage. He noted that Last Chance Grade is in Redwood National and State Parks, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are old growth redwoods and other sensitive species, including the marbled murrelet, the northern spotted owl and the coho salmon.

Matteoli said the environmental review process would study the impacts to every viable alternative.

“At the end of this environmental document, the project development team in coordination with our stakeholders and partner groups will select the preferred alternative,” he said. “That’s important because at that time it will make the job easier for pursuing funds.”

Input from elected officials

John Driscoll, representative for Congressman Jared Huffman, and Del Norte District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard called upon the community to continue to reach out to state and federal transportation officials regarding Last Chance Grade.

One reason the California Transportation Commission approved the $5 million for the geotechnical work on bypassing Last Chance Grade is because of the number of letters it received supporting the project, Driscoll said. He noted that a lot of that support was due to a stakeholder group the congressman created in 2015.

“We sent a big packet of letters to them to get that funding and it made a difference,” he said. “When we go back to the Transportation Commission for more money, we will be seeking that support and more and just continue to make that impression on them.”

While he acknowledged that there was some dissension on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors over Last Chance Grade, Howard said he and his colleagues have begun working in unison. Howard gave local realtor Kurt Stremberg, whose parents died when the highway failed in 1972, credit for generating Wednesday’s town hall meeting, stating that Stremberg has been “leading the efforts to say everybody here has a right to know.”

“Caltrans might own it, but really in the State of California, the taxpayers own this highway and Del Norte County’s directly affected by it,” Howard said. “Our message is to say to the public, we hear you. The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors hears you. The Crescent City Council hears you and we’re going to respond in whatever way our community feels is important to continue keeping this project at the forefront of not only Caltrans, but of our representatives in Washington, D.C.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at .