Remarkable metamorphosis for tunnel

Half Moon Bay Review, Sept. 11, 1996

By Eric Rice

The following is the first in a series of articles on issues surrounding Measure T that will appear before the Nov. 5 election.

From a two-paragraph mention in an environmental report to a $2.6 million study and 10 volumes _ so far _ of detailed data.

That is the remarkable metamorphosis the proposed Devil's Slide tunnel has undergone over the past 22 years, overcoming bureaucractic anti-tunnel vision and institutional disregard en route to becoming a full-fledged alternative in the quest for a permanent repair of Highway 1. On Nov. 5, the saga will move a step closer to finality _ though not all the way due to lingering funding doubts _ when San Mateo County residents vote on Measure T, which would make a tunnel the preferred repair of the problem stretch of Highway 1.

Until last year, when the tunnel alternative emerged seemingly out of thin air, no one was thinking tunnel.

Tunnels and the Coastside go back decades, however. To make way for the Ocean Shore Railroad, a tunnel was blasted through a part of San Pedro Mountain, but was later filled in after it became a haven for rumrunners.

Tunnel plans also have not been limited to Highway 1. The Oct. 17, 1925, Half Moon Bay Review reported a meeting of the Coastside Civic Union where "plans for the financing and construction of the proposed tunnel under the Santa Marine mountains to connect the bay and coastsides of San Mateo county were discussed and furthered . . ."

But until 1973, tunnels were absent from the debate over Devil's Slide. It was that year that Kenneth LaJoie, an El Granada resident who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, suggested a tunnel instead of the proposed Devil's Slide bypass. Along with a letter requesting a tunnel be considered, LaJoie sent the California Department of Transportation some technical drawings he had made. His tunnel bore a striking resemblence to the one currently being studied.

Both follow basically the same route, and LaJoie's was about 4,450 feet long vs. the current proposed length of 4,000 feet.

The inland bypass was first suggested in 1958 and by 1972 was involved in litigation with the Sierra Club over compliance with new state and federal environmental quality laws. According to longtime Peninsula Sierra Club leader Olive Mayer, who was involved with the Devil's Slide debate back then, CalTrans was already locked into its vision for a bypass.

"There was no real technical information," Mayer said of the tunnel proposal. "Of course they (CalTrans) did nothing. CalTrans showed by their lack of followup with Ken LaJoie they had no intention of seriously considering a tunnel."

LaJoie's idea was soon forgotten and during the next 12 years Devil's Slide faded in and out of the limelight. In 1975 it was taken off the front burner for lack of funds. Three years later, environmental studies were resumed, only to be halted again when funding was not provided.

In 1982 CalTrans agreed to study the Marine Disposal Alternative (MDA), a proposal to keep the road along the ocean by moving it inland behind the slide plane by sloughing off the side of the mountain. Unable to convince CalTrans to study the tunnel, the environmental community had switched to backing the MDA.

By the time the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the bypass was issued in January 1985, the tunnel had been marginalized to a meager two paragraphs of consideration.

It read: "This alternative was proposed by the Sierra Club in 1973, and would go through San Pedro Mountain (Exhibit 32). Portals would be located at Green Valley and on the north side of San Pedro Mountain.

"This alternative was withdrawn from active consideration because the tunnel would cost an estimated $100 million. In addition, a tunnel would have to be two lanes in each direction to provide access for emergency vehicles in the event of an accident or stalled vehicle."

The fact that the environmental community had abandoned the tunnel was evident from the fact that many of the 90 questions raised by the public about the alternatives studied in the EIR focused on the MDA. Only two questions were posed about the tunnel and those focused on how CalTrans arrived at its estimated cost of $100 million.

"We couldn't get anybody (to study the tunnel)," Mayer remembered. "All the tunnel people get contracts from CalTrans and weren't willing to get in trouble with CalTrans. . . . We were stymied."

So the bypass opposition remained steadfastly committed to the MDA for another 10 years _ until a fateful visit to the Presidio offices of Ed Ueber, manager of the Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine sanctuaries, on Jan. 9, 1995. Four people attended the meeting _ Mayer, Joe Barnwell, Bill Bechtel and Carl May _ figuring it would be a good idea to find out where Ueber stood on the Devil's Slide issue.

"We were looking for things to do and thought why not lobby the guy who controls beaches and waters," Barnwell recalled.

At the meeting, Barnwell remembered, you could hear jaws drop as Ueber told them flat-out that there was absolutely no way the MDA would be allowed under sanctuary regulations because it would pollute the ocean and destroy intertidal habitat.

"It was a bombshell," Barnwell said, "a blockbuster revelation.

"I remember I drove (Mayer) back in a driving rainstorm and we had to let things settle. We couldn't figure out what to do. Obviously, this put the whole campaign in question."

Within a week, discussion within the coalition of anti-bypass groups began shifting back to the tunnel, and on Jan. 20 Mother Nature pushed the debate onto the front burner by causing the road to fall more than five feet. The road was closed for 160 days, throwing Coastside businesses, commutes and families into turmoil and further intensifying the debate over how to repair Highway 1.

On March 10 the tunnel proposal gained new credibility when a group of independent geotechnical and hydrological experts assembled by county Supervisor Ted Lempert reached a consensus that the tunnel option should be seriously studied.

"There was a strong consensus that CalTrans had not adequately pursued a potential tunnel option," Tim Manzagol said at the time. Manzagol is a geotechnical consultant who served on the panel and was later appointed to a citizens' group overseeing the current tunnel study.

In the first week of September of last year, the tunnel's resurrection was complete when supporters received two gifts. One came from the federal government, the other from the tunnel's longest detractor, CalTrans.

The Federal Highway Administration ordered CalTrans to formally study the tunnel option, acknowledging that grassroots demand for it that had swelled since April. In response, CalTrans spokesman Greg Bayol was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, "We'll re-evaluate it and say a tunnel is too expensive." The quote was viewed by tunnel supporters _ joined by a unanimous Board of Supervisors _ as proof that CalTrans could not be trusted to give the tunnel the fair, unbiased look they felt it deserved. As a result, two public oversight committees were formed to monitor the study's progress. Tunnel supporters also used CalTrans' sentiment as a springboard for a highly successful signature-gathering campaign that put Measure T on the ballot.

"It was a direct reaction to the response CalTrans had to Federal Highways," said Chris Thollaug, a spokesman for Save Our Coast and the Sierra Club's Devil's Slide Campaign. "It was a question of what can we do that we're not already doing and the answer was get the electorate involved."

The completed study is expected to be delivered at a public meeting of the Technical Advisory Committee on Oct. 8, hopefully enough time before the Nov. 5 vote to allow the public to wade through its findings and reach its own conclusion whether the tunnel or the bypass is the better deal.

Half Moon Bay Review