Tunnel backers trumpet 34,000 signatures

Half Moon Bay Review, May 22, 1996

By Eric Rice

A light drizzle did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of a small group of tunnel supporters gathered on the steps of the Hall of Justice in Redwood City Tuesday to show off 34,000 signatures demanding that the question of a tunnel at Devil's Slide be put to a countywide vote.

Some wore bright yellow shirts and yellow construction hats. Others carried signs trumpeting "Think Tunnel," which, thanks to 20,000 bumper stickers stating the same, has become something of a county mantra during the past year.

"Contained in these boxes is proof that the people of San Mateo County are committed to the protection and preservation of our coast," exhorted Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, a spokeswoman for Citizen's Alliance for a Tunnel Solution and a Mid-Coast resident. "We are submitting the names of more than 32,000 San Mateo County citizens who demand an opportunity to solve the Devil's Slide problem with a tunnel vote."

The petitions were then submitted to county Clerk Warren Slocum's office for verification that signatores are registered voters in the county. The Elections Office has up to 30 days to check them, but a spokesperson said it is only expected to take about two weeks.

The initiative's sponsors do not expect problems in qualifying the measure for the Nov. 5 general election since just 22,019 signatures are needed. As of Tuesday, the group had collected 34,539. Initiative organizers said they culled out invalid sigatures as they were gathered.

The initiative would make a proposed 4,600-foot-long tunnel the preferred option to permanently repair the slipping portion of Highway 1 between Montara and Pacifica. A 4.5-mile inland bypass was approved 10 years ago and has partial funding set aside for it, but tunnel supporters claim its environmental impacts are significantly more.

Anticipating that the initiative will qualify for the ballot, supporters cheered at the announcement that the letter T - as in Measure T for Tunnel - has been reserved for the ballot.

Mid-Coast resident Joe Barnwell, who led individual signature-gatherers with more than 3,000, is now looking toward a campaign which he believes will turn on CalTrans' credibility or lack of it.

He said virtually everyone in the county knows about the debate, but most outside the coast see it in terms of the coastal communities and activists vs. CalTrans.

"People essentially want to trust public agencies and CalTrans is completely untrustworthy, and it's difficult to communicate that," he said.

Meanwhile, potential grass roots opposition to the measure is coalescing. John Barbour, a Mid-Coast resident and owner of the Moss Beach Distillery, is a member of the newly formed Coastside Safe Transportation Study Group, which Barbour said is gathering facts on the tunnel vs. bypass issue. He said the group should have its results gathered in a couple weeks.

Barbour said he objects to the initiative because it closes off options and could lead to no permanent repair of the road.

"Let's leave (the decision) up to the Board of Supervisors when they have all the facts in."

Barbour, who said he personally would prefer a tunnel over the bypass, said the group's primary concern is how a tunnel would be funded. Congress has set aside money for the bypass, but not the tunnel.

"If we determine it can be funded, we'll support it with all our might," Barbour said. "We don't really care if it's a bypass or tunnel. . . . We just want a road we can depend on."

When asked on Tuesday if he supports the initiative, county Supervisor Ted Lempert, who has fought hard for an independent analysis of the tunnel option, would not say. But he said the study is supposed to answer all the pertinent questions, which should in itself answer the question of whether the bypass or tunnel should be built.

Lempert has complained in recent weeks that CalTrans, which was told last year by the entire Board of Supervisors to back away from the tunnel study to ensure its independence, is still exerting influence over the study. At Tuesday's regular board meeting, however, Lempert reported that last week he, Supervisor Mike Nevin and County Counsel Tom Casey met in Sacramento with J. Michael Brennan, deputy director for external affairs for CalTrans. Brennan is the boss of Joe Browne, the director of District IV, which includes Devil's Slide.

Lempert and Nevin told Brennan that there were still significant problems with the contract CalTrans negotiated for the tunnel study, most notably limiting the tunnels that can be studied to six pre-determined ones.

"He (Brennan) said, `I thought we had already agreed to that,' " Lempert recalled.

Lempert said that Brennan agreed to put into writing several amendments to the contract that the board has insisted are necessary to ensure the study's independence. In a letter subsequent to their meeting, Lempert and Nevin asked Brennan that CalTrans and the tunnel study consultant, Woodward-Clyde, make a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 4, describing the substance and process of the study.

Half Moon Bay Review