Despite having a definite stake in seeing a permanent repair of Highway 1, very few members of the local business community evinced interest in the Devil's Slide bypass/tunnel debate last week.
The Sept. 5 forum, hosted by the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce for chamber members, attracted fewer than 20 people despite lengthy and informative presentations, both pro and con, on Measure T, and a question-and-answer-session afterward.
"These are all those who are undecided," cracked one chamber member. "Everyone else has made up their mind."
Measure T is the initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot asking voters to change the San Mateo County Local Coastal Program to make a tunnel the preferred permanent repair of Highway 1 at Devil's Slide. The chamber Board of Directors has not decided whether or not it will take a position on the measure, said Executive Director Charise McHugh.
The Yes on T campaign, represented by Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, Chris Thollaug and April Vargas, kicked off the forum, which lasted an hour and a half, with a 20-minute presentation on the merits of the measure and a tunnel.
Kersteen-Tucker called the tunnel a "state-of-the-art transportation solution" and pointed to a tunnel that was built through the tip of San Pedro Mountain in the early part of the century for the Ocean Shore Railroad as proof "that tunnel building in this area is a time-honored concept."
Kersteen-Tucker presented the tunnel as the obviously less environmentally damaging alternative. The tunnel currently being studied by an applied sciences firm would be less than one-mile long, straight and nearly level. By comparison, she claimed the approved Martini Creek Bypass, which would range from 79- to 101-feet wide, is an "overdeveloped, obsolete relic of the 60s" that would pave the way for an eight-lane freeway through the Coastside.
"That's interesting," she said of the size of the bypass, "given it serves only about 9,000 cars a day." By comparison, when Highway 92 is eventually improved to include uphill passing lanes, it is projected to carry 22,300 cars per day.
Also, construction of the bypass includes a "saddle cut," which would excavate nine times the amount of land as the tunnel, she noted. The bypass, she said, would cause siltation in local creeks and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary and would be subject to "more litigation probably."
In terms of safety, Kersteen-Tucker pointed to a yearlong survey by a Montaran that showed Montara Mountain was enveloped in fog 53 percent of the days studied. Seismically, the bypass is inferior to a tunnel, she said, because it includes four bridges built on fill vs. possibly one at the northern end of the tunnel.
"Vote yes for the tunnel, or vote no and get the bypass," she said.
The No on T campaign, represented by William Crowell, Karen King and Al Adreveno, followed with its own presentation on why Measure T should be rejected.
Crowell repeatedly stressed the No on T campaign theme that it is "not against the tunnel. We want a solution." Opponents, he said, are against the measure itself because they feel it pre-empts the proper process.
Crowell said the November vote is premature. If it passes, he said, subsequent environmental studies that must be performed will focus only on a tunnel, excluding a comparison with the bypass to determine which is better. By voting no on Measure T, he stressed, residents will ensure that both alternatives will be completely studied and the best alternative chosen.
Crowell said it is the first time he has witnessed a situation where environmentalists are pushing for environmental studies not to be an important factor in determining what to build.
"If a (environmental) study demonstrates a superior position (for the tunnel), we'll be very delighted to endorse that," Crowell said. "If Measure T passes, then there is no choice but the tunnel.
"What's the big hurry in not allowing an environmental impact report to be done on both?"
If Measure T is defeated, he said, the $50 million set aside to build the bypass can remain where it is while the environmental studies of both are done. If afterward they show a tunnel is preferable, effort could begin to convince Congress to reallocate the money for a tunnel, Crowell said.
Crowell characterized CalTrans as simply a "construction company" that builds roads it is told to build "regardless of what Westinghouse (Properties) wanted back in 1971.
He also mocked the wording of the initiative, which includes four "findings" such as a tunnel is "timely," "cost-effective" and "safe and reliable" given that the tunnel study is not complete.
"Your information is always different than the published information we get from CalTrans," Crowell said.
He warned that Measure T would have the undesirable effect of moving the process of building a Highway 1 road off the coast and into the entire county because a countywide vote would be needed to overturn the measure.
"We believe that Highway 1 is important to the coast," he said.
Opponents fear that if Measure T passes, the coast could be left with no road through Devil's Slide if money is not secured to build a tunnel and the road goes out again. That would translate to road closures, heavy traffic, lost jobs, increased child care costs, commuter dissatisfaction and an overall lessening of quality of life, according to opponents.
"It's the concept of foreclosing all alternatives but one that we're concerned about," Crowell said.
During the question-and-answer period, the Yes on T side was asked what happens if the highway fails again and no funding for a tunnel can be found. Thollaug said the measure allows for three alternatives, in decreasing priority: A tunnel; repair of the existing road on its current alignment; and a different project, perhaps the bypass, but only if approved by a countywide vote.
The No on T group focused on a worst-case scenario where the measure is approved but no tunnel is built and the road goes out. King, a Realtor, was asked about the effect of home prices if that happened. She suggested people find a new place to live if there is no guaranteed solution and a permanent way in and out of the coast through Devil's Slide.
Thollaug said that the completed geotechnical study was recently completed and concludes that a tunnel is technically feasible. The second phase of the study, estimating the cost of a tunnel, is expected on Oct. 8
"We believe now with (Colorado Department of Transportation official) Ralph Trapani's oversight we will get an objective tunnel study," Thollaug said.
A couple questions veered far from the debate and proved unanswerable to both sides, such as a suggestion that the tunnel might be more of a target for terrorist activity than the bypass.