Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Caltrans Selects Tunnel Option for Last Chance Grade

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2024 at 2:44 PM

click to enlarge Last Chance Grade. - CALTRANS
  • Caltrans
  • Last Chance Grade.
A resolution to the landslide issues that have plagued the narrow stretch of U.S. Highway 101 in Del Norte County known as Last Chance Grade is inching closer to reality.

In a decision years in the making, Caltrans recently announced the agency will pursue what’s been called Alternative F, which entails realigning the highway and constructing a mile-long tunnel to sidestep the problem area.

"After many generations of Del Norte County citizens traversing this fabled, continuously failing section of our state highway system, we have reached the conclusion to construct a tunnel with broad agreement among regional stakeholders,” Del Norte County Supervisor Chris Howard in a news release. “Del Norte County is grateful to our community, tribal, environmental and agency partners that have dedicated many years to finding a path forward."
click to enlarge The map shows Alternative F, which will take U.S. Highway 101 inland just before Last Chance Grade, and Alternative X, which would have kept the current route and continued work to stabilize the geographically challenged area. - CALTRANS
  • Caltrans
  • The map shows Alternative F, which will take U.S. Highway 101 inland just before Last Chance Grade, and Alternative X, which would have kept the current route and continued work to stabilize the geographically challenged area.
The other option on the table — narrowed down from an original six, each with their own set of complicating factors — was continuing efforts to stabilize the 3-mile-long section of highway, an endeavor that has cost tens of millions in recent decades to maintain the vital artery that connects California's northernmost reaches to the rest of the state.

A catastrophic failure on the cliffside route that has seen regular closures for as long as it's been open could leave businesses in Humboldt and Del Norte cut off from their suppliers and customers, children separated from their schools and sever the only viable link between Del Norte County's southern residents and their seat of government.

The only other option is a 320-mile, seven-hour detour via U.S. Highway 199 to Interstate 5 to State Route 299.

Even with that milestone of selecting an alternative reached after extensive reviews and the collaborative effort of tribes, environmental groups, lawmakers and other stakeholders, the road ahead remains long.

According to Caltrans, the project’s construction costs carry an estimated price tag of $2.1 billion in “2031 dollars,” with the tunnel — which would be the longest in California — maximizing “long-term reliability” by offering the ability to circumvent “chronic landslides, coastal erosion and the impacts of climate change while ensuring safety during seismic events.”

“While the option presents challenges due to the sensitive environment and potential impacts on large-diameter, old-growth redwood trees, Caltrans is committed to delivering a successful project through partnership, community support and collaborative mitigation efforts, exploring all avenues to stay on schedule while prioritizing quality, efficiency and preservation,” the release states.

The hope is to start construction as early as 2030, with the tunnel opening eight years later, but that’s all contingent on a host of factors aligning, including obtaining the funding and finalizing environmental documents, with Caltrans noting the agency “is looking for any and all opportunities to accelerate this timeline.”

“We are grateful for the support of our community and partners, and we are confident that together we can overcome the challenges ahead and deliver this critical project for the people of the region and the state of California," Caltrans District 1 Director Matt Brady said.

The Environmental Protection and Information Center (EPIC) also voiced support, stating in a news release that “the process by which the tunnel alternative was chosen was transparent and well-executed.”

“EPIC, together with many other stakeholders, has participated in over 10 years of meetings, and feedback from these meetings has shaped and improved the decision,” the release states.

While acknowledging the choice will come with impacts, including the removal of old growth redwood trees, EPIC states that those will be “less severe” than other alternatives previously under consideration.

“EPIC is committed to continue working with Caltrans to refine the project to reduce avoidable impacts and to ensure that whatever impacts cannot be avoided will be minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent possible,” the release states.

The challenges of Last Chance Grade are nothing new, dating back to 1894 when a wagon trail was first cut through the desolate stretch, with some 200 active landslides documented in the area. The idea of moving the roadway inland was even raised back in 1933 when the current route was built, but those plans were derailed, mainly due to cost.

And so, over the ensuing decades, Last Chance Grade has been a constant work in progress to stave off a major failure that could have devastating financial repercussions, with Del Norte County alone estimate to be at risk of losing $300 million to $400 million per year in economic productivity, along with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 jobs from an extended or permanent closure.

“It's been a long road, so to speak, identifying a consensus solution for the failing ‘Last Chance Grade’ section ...  in Del Norte County, but thanks to a great inclusive, transparent and deliberative process, we have a project,” North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman said in a social media post, noting the work ahead is “not an easy fix.”

“But now we can all lean in together and make it happen,” he continued. “The ad hoc stakeholder group I put together about six years ago, in partnership with [state] Sen. [Mike] McGuire, Assemblymember Wood and local leaders, was key to reaching consensus here. I'm excited to start moving forward on this ambitious but necessary long-term solution.”

McGuire expressed similar sentiments.

“After decades of inaction, the Last Chance Grade permanent improvement project is on the move,” he said in a release. “The decision to advance with a tunnel will finally give Del Norte the safe and secure passage on Highway 101 that the community has long deserved. Building this tunnel will be a feat in engineering that also protects the old growth redwoods that have grown for centuries at this World Heritage Site and treats ancestral lands and cultural sites with the utmost care and sensitivity.

“This decision is an incredible milestone for Caltrans District 1 and represents six years of intensive collaboration and analysis,” he continued. “We owe huge gratitude to Del Norte neighbors for their patience along with city, county leaders and tribal leaders, local environmental leaders, the state of California and the federal government who have been working overtime to get this job across the finish line.”
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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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