Doubts about the credibility of the California Department of Transportation's top management and the independence of the Devil's Slide tunnel study were reignited Tuesday after the agency snubbed local residents by abruptly refusing to attend a meeting and provide the public with an update on the progress of the study.
An official with CalTrans had agreed as of last week to attend the Tuesday night joint meeting of the Technical Review Committee and the Citizens Advisory Commitee and to allow a representative of Woodward-Clyde, the firm conducting the tunnel feasibility study, to attend and answer questions from the public about the study. On Monday, however, CalTrans District Director Joe Browne notified the committee that state transportation officials would not attend.
"Because of the special sensitivities required toward a topic under consideration by the electorate, our representatives cannot be put in a position which might be construed as favoring one side of the issue or the other," Browne wrote, also citing ongoing litigation over the approved inland Martini Creek Bypass as another reason.
CalTrans' withdrawl also meant that Woodward-Clyde was prohibited from attending the meeting. In turn, a representative of the Federal Highway Administration, who had also promised to attend, backed out.
The meeting was still held, however, and expertise was offered from a Colorado tunnel expert hired by San Mateo County as a consultant. Ralph Trapani also pledged to get answers to many of the public's questions directly from CalTrans and Woodward-Clyde at a planned meeting with them this morning in Oakland.
Both residents and members of the Citizens Advisory Committee were indignant at CalTrans' action, labeling it "arrogant and cowardly" and a "public disservice."
"The whole purpose of this was to create a climate of disclosure" that was conducive to trusting the results of the tunnel study, said Half Moon Bay Mayor Debbie Ruddock, who chaired the meeting.
"I find it unbelievable that a public agency is unwilling to meet with the public and its Citizens Advisory Committee, particularly after agreeing to such meetings," San Mateo County Supervisor Ted Lempert said in a press release. ". . . CalTrans is showing a complete disregard for the citizens and public officials of San Mateo County."
CalTrans has been repeatedly accused by the public of refusing to seriously consider a tunnel as a way to repair Highway 1 at Devils' Slide and inserting bias into the tunnel study to make that alternative too costly so that the CalTrans-favored Martini Creek Bypass can be built.
Even Trapani, who in his job with the Colorado Department of Transportation sits in the same position as CalTrans officials, suggested the agency should have been there.
"I've always come to those meetings and I'll always listen to the people because they are the customer," he said to loud applause from most of the approximately 80 people in the Adcock Community/Senior Center where the meeting was held.
After 45 minutes of venting about CalTrans, the meeting settled down into a relatively informative session with Trapani trying to bring the public up to date on the progess of the study. Trapani is one of three tunnel experts overseeing the study, but he said that oversight by the general public is still "key" to ensuring the best product is built. It is also necessary, he said, to build public confidence in the transportation officials building it.
"I don't think community pressure is a bad thing," said the genial Trapani who scrambled to fly in from Atlanta for Tuesday night's meeting. "I've seen it create some of the best projects."
Trapani had words of reassurance for the public about the completeness and independence of the study work that Woodward-Clyde is performing, saying the consultant is very committed and is proceeding aggressively.
"I really don't get the sense that Woodward-Clyde is being confined there," he said. "I've had nothing withheld from me."
Though it is too early to tell for certain, Trapani said he doubts there will be enough of a clear difference in the cost of the tunnel vs. the bypass to help the public choose. He said in that event, people should consider what they want the community to be like in the future.
"I really think this is going to boil down to a community character issue," he said.
One recurring issue of concern in the study is whether bicycle and pedestrian lanes should be included in the tunnel. Trapani said he interprets the federal engineering guidelines on the matter as preventing them. He said, however, that he has been told there are "precedents for private recreation authorities to maintain (Highway 1)," alluding to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area possibly taking over the existing road as a hiking and biking trail if a tunnel is built. The GGNRA already manages Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica.