Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Looking back on 2017, it would be hard to miss the attention given to Last Chance Grade, the section of U.S. 101 that for many years has been in a near-constant state of disrepair, due to landslides and shifting.

However, most on-the-ground construction on the grade has suspended for the holiday and will resume after the new year.

Project manager Jaime Matteoli reported to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors in May, saying

“Caltrans and the Federal Highway Association are working hand-in-hand to really answer the key questions that we need to answer to get full funding for the project. We’re seeking funds out of the Federal Emergency Relief Program and there are a number of issues with funding a project this large and of this nature.”

Matteoli explained meetings must continue with FHWA staff to review geotechnical information from the grade.

“We’ve been collecting information from hole information drilling and we’re just synthesizing that right now into one report where we can look at it with the folks from FHWA.” He said they will then make the determination if it’s possible to maintain the road reliably for the next 30 to 50 years and if it would be worth the investment to do so.

The cost to repair and repave

Last winter’s storms caused a reported $27.6 million in damages to the grade and totaled $35 million since March 2016. Matteoli said statewide, last winter’s storms caused $1.2 billion in damage.

At the time, he also spoke of an economic analysis that estimated Del Norte County would lose as much as $1 billion in increased costs, travel expenses, lost jobs and other areas. A new study is being done to examine the potential impacts on a regional level and it should be complete in February.

Meetings, concerns

Many meetings happened locally and abroad involving local stakeholders, county supervisors, Crescent City Council members and even federal transportation officials, while others were held in public forums.

In October, state Sen. Mike McGuire held a town hall style meeting in Crescent City to discuss many topics, including the grade.

There, Matteoli spoke of the grade area and what officials have observed.

“For decades, we have seen movement of the area,” he said. “It’s been a slow and steady movement of the landslide. Caltrans is committed to keeping the road safe and keeping it open, and we’re committed to finding a long-term solution to Last Chance Grade.

“We have been approved to fund $35 million for repairs up Last Chance Grade alone, and ” Matteoli said, “to take care of damage from 2017 and 2016 and $27 million of that goes to construction.”

Matteoli said a big part of Caltrans’ work on the grade revolves around monitoring.

In regards to concerns the grade may slide off unexpectedly, Matteoli said monitoring will allow personnel already on the grade to respond immediately should any movement occur.

The bypass

In May, $5 million came from the California Transportation Commission to begin geotechnical studies on seven potential alternative routes previously identified by Caltrans.

On the last Friday of 2017, Caltrans Public Information Officer Myles Cochrane noted that work to realign the grade has physically left the pavement.

“Caltrans survey crews have placed stakes in the ground east of the current road where alternative routes would be located, in areas often featuring steep slopes and dense vegetation,” Cochrane said Friday. “The geotechnical team is now visually inspecting that area, which allows them to plan what geotechnical studies they want to perform and where they will occur.”

He said studies of easily accessible areas will likely happen this summer in places where existing dirt roads cross the proposed alternative routes.

“Those studies will assist us in validating or refining the locations of the alternatives, which go through many areas of historic landslides,” Cochrane said. “Caltrans continues to work with FHWA and renowned landslide professionals on an Expert Based Risk Assessment, analyzing options moving forward. When that is released in the coming months it will tell us more about what makes the most sense where for what money.”

According to the current timeline, completion of an alternative highway around the slide area could be as far in the future as 2039.

For more information and to review the seven alternative routes identified by Caltrans, go to class="Apple-converted-space">

Where we are now

As for drivers traveling over the grade this winter, Caltrans remains confident they will be safe.

At previous meetings, Matteoli spoke of the slide which took the shoulder and part of the southbound lane at mile marker 14.4 last winter. He noted engineers pinpointed the pending slide far enough in advance that they were able to block the lane, reroute traffic before the slide and shoot video of the slide as it happened.

“We continue to utilize our near real-time monitoring system and crews on the ground to keep an eye on the grade, making sure it’s safe for the traveling public. We’re continuing to work on projects improving and maintaining the current alignment. As long as it’s is open, it’s safe for travel.”