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Straightening the Hairpins 

Highway 299 remake will create a smoother, faster ride — eventually

One of the best ways to spend a summer day is on a drive from Arcata to Redding via State Route 299. Travelers are likely to see birds of prey circle overhead, as small cumulus clouds drag across a blinding blue sky, and a flurry of wildflowers, redwoods and oaks rush by on either side. The 140-mile route is designated as a state scenic highway.

But for all its beauty, highway 299's hairpin turns, sporadic lack of shoulder lanes and winter ice and snow make it one of the most dangerous roads in California.

The 7½-mile stretch just west east of the Trinity-Shasta county line accounted for 223 car accidents from 2005 to 2009, according to Trisha Coder, public information officer for Caltrans District 2. "That's a lot of accidents," she said in a phone interview. "That's why the Buckhorn Grade Improvement Project was started as a safety project."

The project calls for Caltrans to reconstruct 9.6 miles of State Route 299, from two miles west of the Trinity-Shasta county line to Crystal Creek Road, about 20 miles outside of Redding. "[Caltrans] is cutting into mountains and moving roads," Coder said. "It's pretty amazing when you think about it."

The work started in 2009, and by the time it's done in 2017, crews will have straightened 18 hairpin turns, widened shoulders and added truck passing and climbing lanes for a faster and safer drive.

First, though, will come long waits, this summer and the next three summers, until the $60 million road construction is completed. CalTrans estimates the current average wait time is about 30 minutes, but suggests travelers allow for delays of up to an hour.

From start to finish, Caltrans crews will have moved at least 2.7 million cubic yards of earth, according to current construction plans. In comparison, the Hoover Dam contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete, according to the Department of Interior's website.

While the road work may have started as a safety project, as Coder says, it also aims to make the road usable for larger semi-trucks, those longer than 48 feet. Now that these bigger trucks have become more common, regions that can't be reached by them are at an economic disadvantage, according to a Caltrans Environmental Impact Report prepared for the Buckhorn Grade Project. The report cited one economic study that estimated businesses and residents pay about 10 percent to 15 percent more for goods when the biggest trucks can't get through. Those trucks should be able to navigate the new 299, once it is fully reconstructed and is certified for them, according to Caltrans.

If that rings a bell for people who have followed the Highway 101 controversies over roadwork in Richardson Grove and around Willits, it's because those projects, too, aim to make passage by larger trucks possible. Gary Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata, said that once the Highway 299 work is done, it would provide "the fastest, most direct route for goods from Humboldt County to national markets." For that reason, he said, Caltrans should reassess the need to widen and straighten Highway 101 for larger trucks.

When all is said and done, Humboldt County will have contributed $5.6 million of the $60 million price tag for the Buckhorn Pass improvements, according to Marcella Clem, executive director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments.

Clem said opening State Route 299 to bigger trucks will help the economy here. "We're very thankful to District 2 for funding the majority of the project," she said.

The improvements are likely to have some costs of their own, though. As bigger trucks reach Humboldt County, they could cause additional wear and tear on streets in Eureka that were not originally built to sustain the heavier loads, according to a Humboldt County Association of Governments planning report.

But despite any extra road wear, Tonya Walker, travel ambassador for the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, couldn't be happier about the road improvements. Not because of any business benefits to the community, but rather, because she misses her grandparents.

"My family doesn't come to too many games anymore," said Walker, who is a native of Redding and center-fielder on Humboldt State's softball team. "It's dangerous, especially when it rains." Her grandparents found it increasingly difficult to travel back and forth over the stomach-churning curves of 299 to watch her during playoffs last season. And while other students are back home with their families during the summer, Walker stays behind to work. "I don't get to go home often, so I'm glad they're making [State Route 299] straighter," she said.

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