Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Local and state legislators are excited money may soon become available to pay for environmental studies that will advance construction of a bypass around Last Chance Grade.

“Today, a partnership including Congressman Jared Huffman, Senator Mike McGuire, and Assemblymember Jim Wood, are thrilled to announce that Caltrans will request the final $40 million needed to complete the overall Last Chance Grade environmental study,” said a press release received from McGuire’s office on Friday.

By phone, Sen. Mike McGuire said the funding request will be made at the commission’s March meeting.

If approved, the $40 million request from Caltrans to the California Transportation Commission will secure all the necessary money for the environmental impact report needed to design a long-term fix for the Last Chance Grade.

McGuire said Caltrans has spent $55 million on “Band-Aid” repairs of the grade.

“For decades, the residents of Del Norte and Humboldt County have had to endure the challenges of Last Chance Grade,” he said, “and we have always known that a catastrophic failure would have about a $1 billion to $1.5 billion negative impact on our regional economy. A catastrophic failure would also put the health and safety of Del Norte residents at risk.”

Partnerships, movement

“In the past couple of years, thanks to our work together, Last Chance Grade has finally begun receiving the attention it needs,” Huffman said in a press release. “I convened the Last Chance Grade Stakeholders Group to explore permanent solutions to this serious economic and safety risk, and that group needs — and the broader community deserves — the information that will be gathered through this environmental impact report to determine how best to route the highway to provide safe transportation, while protecting the precious natural resources of beautiful Del Norte County.”

McGuire noted $10 million has already been allocated for geotechnical studies and risk assessments.

“We actually launched the environmental study as well,” he said. “This is significant because the state has spent about 55 million over the last decade simply shoring up the right-of-way on U.S. 101. The studies are set to conclude in 2026, and we have had preliminary discussions about that timeline.”

Del Norte County Supervisor Chair Lori Cowan said some of the studies are being done in advance of the funding allocation, thereby possibly shortening the overall timeline. Typically all tests, plans and funding have to be in place before anything is done, she said.

“Caltrans and California believed in this and started these environmental studies, the geological and geotechnical, and environmental, before that,” Cowan said, “so even though we have this timeline, we’re getting a jump on it.”

“Our first priority has always been to get the final funding for the environmental impact study on the Transportation Commission’s agenda,” McGuire said. “They will take up that agenda item in March, and once that’s approved, funding would be distributed to Caltrans.”

“Constructing a lasting and permanent fix for the Last Chance Grade is a massive project,” said Assemblymember Wood, in a release. “Creating an alternative route that will endure decades of use and support the local economy while protecting our beautiful coastal environment is the challenge. The funding for this phase of the project is critical to that end, and I want to acknowledge the patience of the community and thank them for understanding the importance of the process in meeting our long-term goal.”

Cowan pointed out that the source of the funding was approved by the voters.

“I can’t emphasize enough, that this has never happened in all these years and for the first time, we’re seeing funding for the alternate route, and that’s never happened in our community,” she said, “and a lot of that comes down to the gas tax. That played a huge part. I supported it because I new we were going to the California Transportation Commission for a big ask and we knew that without that tax, the most likely answer was going to be ‘no.’”

McGuire agreed, adding, “Like it or not, the way we are going to fund the environmental study is through the gas tax. There’s no way in hell we would be able to advance the $40 million without the gas tax.”

Looking ahead

In response to concerns that a bypass needs to happen sooner, due to a repeated presumption that the roadway will fail, Cowan referred to Caltrans oft-repeated promise to get the road open quickly in the event of a slide or collapse.

McGuire said no state or federal project would be able to skirt environmental laws when it comes to a massive infrastructure project like a bypass.

“Rather than working against each other, there has been a sincere effort, at all levels of government, to work together and get this job done,” he said.

McGuire said he and Caltrans District Director Matt Brady will be speaking to the community at the next economic summit in March to explain what will happen next on the grade.

McGuire noted that both the former and current Caltrans Directors have kept the grade on top of their priority lists. Cowan said it’s important to keep top level administrators aware of Last Chance Grade while working together at the local and state levels.

Timeline

McGuire credited Huffman and his working group, saying their work will be critical in the coming months as the number of alternative routes around the grade are considered and narrowed down.

Cowan said groups will try to narrow down the alternatives this spring, to ensure the best routes are chosen before environmental studies begin.

According to Caltrans’ project timeline, studies are expected to be complete in 2026 and will include ground surveys, botanical studies (two years), geotechnical studies, wetland delineations, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological assessment and biological opinion, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biological assessment and biological opinion, traffic studies and CEQA/NEPA public workshops and comment periods.

Following the environmental studies will be the design and permitting phase, estimated to conclude in 2031. Construction of the new bypass is expected to take five to eight years, and Caltrans estimates it will be open to the public in 2039.

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