By the end of a Caltrans open house meeting Thursday night, it was clear to most that a bypass around Last Chance Grade was not going to be cheap or happen anytime soon.
About 100 people, including city, county and state representatives were in attendance Thursday to hear from Caltrans officials, a contracted geologist, the project manager and state Sen. Mike McGuire, who noted Del Norte County’s economy and safety depends on having a dependable highway.
“The bottom line is this; I think we can all agree that progress has been a long time coming on this vital project,” McGuire said. “For far too long, Del Norte residents have had to endure deteriorating conditions on Highway 101 and Last Chance Grade. You are going to see a unified front to be able to advance a new route that will be a permanent alternative to what we currently have on the coast.”
McGuire said that in the past couple years, more money has been secured for the grade than in the decade prior. With the $10 million in funding, Caltrans will kick off its geotechnical study, which is estimated to cost between $50 million and $60 million by completion.
McGuire said the study will help determine which of several proposed alternatives will advance to construction.
“Here’s the big item,” he said. “We can’t move the actual construction project forward without conducting an environmental study.”
McGuire announced that he will attend “a big meeting in Sacramento” with Caltrans Director Laurie Berman, California Transportation Commission Director Susan Bransen, Assemblymember Jim Wood, and Caltrans District 1 Director Matthew Brady to start seeking money to move the environmental study forward.
Brady opened by saying Last Chance Grade is the highest priority project in District 1, which includes Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties.
He said Berman recently visited the site and understands why a new alignment is necessary.
“She also is committed to finding a permanent solution and a funding solution,” he said.
Asked how an environmental study can cost $50 million to $60 million, McGuire said that number has actually been reduced from previous estimates. Brady said with all the proposed alignment routes, preliminary design features need to be formulated and studied.
“There’s a lot of studies that take a lot of years, there are floristic studies where you are looking at different kinds of plants that bloom in different times of the year,” he said. “There’s different alignments too. It could be a smaller number depending on what alignment we ultimately study in more detail.”
Brady noted the environmental study for the recently completed Willits Bypass exceeded $100 million.
Asked if the project is in competition for funding with other state projects, McGuire said no, adding that while some Senate Bill 1 funds will go to the state’s high speed train project, it does not compete for funding. However, it does compete with other highway related projects in the state, he said.
McGuire seconded a comment from the audience who demanded that something be done soon, saying the upcoming “big meeting” is the first of its kind designed to find funding to get the environmental study done.
Project Manager Jaime Matteoli acknowledged the other panelists, saying they are a small part of the team working to get the project done. He later noted a closure of the grade would result in a 320-mile detour, adding six hours to the time it takes to get from Klamath to Crescent City.
Showing an aerial map of the grade, Matteoli noted the grade has been moving a couple inches per year since it was built in 1937. Its northern area features three, somewhat overlapping landslide sections.
“At the worst location, we have seen 40 feet of horizontal movement and 30 feet of vertical movement,” he said. “Because of the movement, he have had high costs to maintain the road, high costs to repair the road and we have had impacts to you all as you are making trips to the south. We all agree, we’re in a position where this is not sustainable. We need to find a long-term solution, the ultimate solution.”
However, in the meantime, Caltrans needs to use the existing highway and keep it safe, he said.
“We have all the resources we need to do both jobs at this point,” he said.
Matteoli said Caltrans has been approved to spend $35 million to repair storm damage from 2016-17, by the Federal Highways Administration. Of that, $27 million goes to construction costs,” he said.
Matteoli said a retaining wall is now complete at mile marker 14.4, where a slide took part of the southbound lane in 2017. He said the signal light will be removed from the area sometime in the end of summer.
Retaining walls in other areas are also done to the north, he noted and others are still under construction. Matteoli showed a photo of the area below the “ski jump” where the concrete retaining wall was damaged during storms in 2017.
“In addition to fixing the damage, we are also monitoring for any damage that might occur,” he said. “This is equally important and we have a number of tools in place to help us monitor the roadway.”
Matteoli stressed the value of having “boots on the ground” in the form of onsite crews who can monitor cracking and settling in order to respond quickly. Underground electronic monitors send email alerts to staff that allow crews to respond in “near real time.”
“We have the needed safety features in place. We have barriers and we have rails,” he said. “These are the things we are doing to keep the road open and keep it safe.”
He said that by the time all the 2016-17 damage is repaired, Caltrans will have spent $85 million on construction at the grade since 1997.
He said a regional economic study recently determined a full closure of U.S. 101 would cost the region $1.5 billion a year.
Matteoli noted a team of geotechnical experts performed and released a geological risk assessment for the alternative alignments.
“They don’t feel there’s a great risk of a large closure,” Matteoli said, “and if there was a large closure, we don’t think there’s a great risk that it would take the amount of time we’re talking about. We would get the road open as quickly as we can, likely within days. Again, the costs are mounting. It’s not sustainable anymore.”
Calling the environmental study the most important, challenging, risky and time-consuming part of the process, Matteoli noted the best alternative route for Last Chance Grade will not be chosen until it’s complete.
“That will happen years from now,” he said. “What we’re determining now is the best set of alternatives to really begin.” Later in the meeting, it was estimated a full bypass of Last Chance Grade may be completed and open by 2039.
Matteoli called the $10 million allocation a down payment on the cost of the environmental study.
“I can tell you right now, as the project leader, that we have all the funding we need to make good progress for the next year or two, so we’re not slowed down by not having the rest of that funding,” he said. “Once we have that funding in place, we can get design funds, and as people mentioned, we are looking at every possible source of funding.”
Scott Anderson of BCG Engineering led a team of five geotechnical experts in preparing a geological risk assessment for the alternative alignments and a full report on his technical presentation is pending.