Tunnel in a landslide

Half Moon Bay Review, Nov. 6, 1996

By Eric Rice

For 38 years, Coastside residents have been told the Devil's Slide bypass will be built. On Tuesday, they said they don't want it when they passed Measure T, the tunnel initiative, by an almost 3-1 margin.

With all 522 San Mateo County precincts reporting, Measure T, the Devil's Slide Tunnel Initiative, was an easy winner, posting 154,458 votes in favor and 53,694 votes against, a margin of 73.83 percent to 26.17 percent.

"I think we're over the hill and on the road to solving the problem without destroying all the things we've worked so hard to preserve," said an elated Lennie Roberts, a 24-year opponent of the Martini Creek Bypass.

The tunnel still faces an uphill battle. Funding to build it has not been secured and must be appropriated by Congress. The cost for the tunnel most likely to be selected is estimated at between $108 million and $138 million.

County Supervisors Ted Lempert and Ruben Barrales have pledged to begin meeting with officials as soon as today to get moving on the funding issue. They plan gathering all the agencies and legislators that will have a say in the issue in hopes of fast-tracking the project as an emergency repair.

Measure T amends the San Mateo County Local Coastal Program to make a 4,000-foot-long tunnel through San Pedro Mountain the preferred permanent repair for the slide-prone stretch of Highway 1. The 4.5-mile Martini Creek Bypass has been the preferred alternative since its approval in 1986, but it has been stalled by lawsuits and never built.

Chris Thollaug, one of the leaders in the tunnel campaign, said the vote represents both a desire to see Highway 1 repaired as well as a vote for environmental protection of the Coastside.

"Our commitment was to work aggressively for this and our deeds will match our words," he said. "Just watch when this juggernaut moves on to build the tunnel."

Supporters clad in their familiar yellow shirts toasted their successful campaign Tuesday night at a packed San Benito House in Half Moon Bay. Many had predicted a lopsided vote in favor of Measure T and did not have to wait long to let loose with cheers of "Hooray!" and chants of "Dig! Dig! Dig!"

"This is the coast, our coast," beamed Yes on T spokeswoman Zoe Kersteen-Tucker. "The people of San Mateo County have a history of protecting it and this is another example of that."

As soon as the first ballots were counted, Measure T took a 69 percent to 31 percent lead and it inched up from there.

A group of more than 300 volunteers, most from the Coastside, spearheaded a relentless and well-organized campaign. By comparison, the No on T campaign stumbled, unable to raise the money it felt was needed to run its planned campaign. Measure T supporters were also greatly aided by a $2.6 million study released last month that showed the cost to build the tunnel is comparable with the cost to build the bypass.

Lempert, who was elected to the state Assembly Tuesday night, said the vote should help restore faith in government.

"It's a tremendous victory and the kind of victory that will restore people's confidence in the system," Lempert said.

But for Measure T opponent Mary Ann Sabie, the vote was "a prime example of politics without principle." She accused voters of passing a "non-solution."

"It's more than a non-solution," Sabie said. "It's a sham."

Ed Stoehr, one of the leaders of the No on T campaign, was more conciliatory, but is still worried that funding for a tunnel is not secured. He said he felt positive that the No on T campaign had brought the funding issue to prominence and is encouraged that virtually every politician has promised to work diligently to secure the money needed.

"We want a solution," Stoehr said. "It can be a road. It can be a tunnel. . . . If I can do anything on a countywide level to help, I'd be more than happy to help."

Mid-Coast businessman John Barbour, a Measure T opponent, also pledged to support the funding effort. He suggested the formation of a joint action committee "to get on the next plane to Washington, D.C. if that's what it takes."

"I will be contacting the business community and I expect total support," he said. " . . . We must not forget the road closure (last year). We must get this tunnel built."

Highway 1 was closed between Montara and Pacifica for five months last year after the roadbed fell more than five feet. It has fallen approximately 40 feet since the road was constructed in the 1930s.

With approval of the measure, efforts will now focus on funding and yet-to-be-done environmental studies.

One step is to seek approval from the California Coastal Commission for the change to the Local Coastal Program, and approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the change to the highway. Those approvals are not anticipated to be controversial, however.

Secondly, elected officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, who was easily re-elected Tuesday, must begin work on securing funding.

Finally, CalTrans must designate the tunnel a "practicable alternative." That will then open the door to a supplemental environmental study of the impacts of the bypass.

As recently as Monday, however, there were indications CalTrans is still cool toward a tunnel.

CalTrans and the three groups that filed suit to stop the bypass 10 years ago appeared again in court for an appeal on the issue of whether the bypass was jointly planned by CalTrans and the state Department of Parks and Recreation. At the hearing, according to Lennie Roberts, who was in attendance, an attorney for the Federal Highways Administration said that $52 million previously allocated for the bypass could not be spent on the bypass if Measure T passed. In response, Roberts said, CalTrans attorney Norval Fairman suggested that CalTrans could bring the bypass back for a countywide vote in two years to again make it the preferred alternative.

Half Moon Bay Review