In an about-face, the California Department of Transportation said last week it now supports the construction of a tunnel as both the people's choice and the better environmental solution for the repair of Highway 1 at Devil's Slide.
The decision to support the tunnel, formally announced in Sacramento Friday by CalTrans Director James van Loben Sels, marks the end of more than a decade of support by the agency for an inland bypass, which would have bisected McNee Ranch State Park in Montara.
"What it means is we are now advocating the tunnel," said CalTrans spokesman Jeff Weiss, adding that van Loben Sels told Bay Area CalTrans officials to "fast-track" the project.
According to Weiss, the "change of heart" _ brought about by last week's 3-1 electoral victory for Measure T, the Devil's Slide Tunnel Initiative, but even more so by a recent $2.6 million study that concluded a tunnel is feasible _ even extends to a newfound conviction that "the tunnel is a better alternative than the bypass" in terms of environmental impacts.
Tunnel advocates were elated with the news.
"I'm hopeful this is for real and we can all move forward to get the project built in record time," said Montaran Kate Smit, a tunnel supporter who worked extensively on transportation-related issues during the recent Measure T campaign.
Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, spokeswoman for Citizens Alliance for the Tunnel Solution, said the announcement is an important sign. "That's a very positive thing because it means we can move ahead (with environmental studies) and start the funding process simultaneously."
According to Weiss, the policy shift may help resolve the funding question because it means "all the (CalTrans) engineers are on the same page." No money is set aside to build a tunnel, which is estimated to cost between $108 million and $138 million.
The first stab at tunnel funding may come quickly. Tunnel advocates say U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, may try to secure funding for the tunnel by attaching a rider to a congressional emergency relief bill that would aid hurricane victims in North Carolina.
By "fast-tracking" the project, Weiss said environmental studies could be completed in as short a period as eight months, or take up to two years. A key point of discussion will be whether CalTrans seeks to speed the process by using a FONSI _ a Finding Of No Significant (environmental) Impacts. That could be problematic, however, since tunnel construction would necessitate the relocation of a pond that is home to the endangered red-legged frog. Weiss said a FONSI might meet state and federal requirements, but could leave CalTrans exposed to lawsuits.
"(A FONSI is) a big target for a lawsuit,"
Weiss said. "It's not a sitting duck for a lawsuit, but it's a big barn.
"To suggest everyone's in favor of this is jumping to conclusions," he added.
If opposition is lurking, it made a point of laying low last week. Since the Nov. 5 election, Measure T supporters have been working to round up support from even the staunchest holdouts. They have meetings scheduled this week with Conservatory hotel/condo builder Bill Crowell and state Sen. Quentin Kopp.
Weiss estimated that a standard supplemental impact report could be completed in a year, but that it might take two for a more exhaustive one. Tunnel supporters believe the studies can be expedited by hiring Woodward-Clyde, the Oakland-based engineering firm that did the tunnel study, to perform the work. They will push for that at a meeting set for Wednesday with county supervisors, CalTrans and the Federal Highway Administration.
Smit said efforts are also focusing on forming a new citizens advisory committee "to help carry on the vision of the community." It would include locals to advise on such issues as trail access, and biking and hiking.
A symbolically important step to some in the community will be the elimination of ongoing litigation against the inland bypass by the Sierra Club, Committee for Green Foothills and Committee for the Permanent Repair of Highway 1. That might come before the tunnel is actually approved and funded. Once the county's Local Coastal Plan is amended so the bypass is no longer listed as the preferred alternative, which Measure T did, the litigation may be moot, said Green Foothills spokeswoman Lennie Roberts.
Though CalTrans' policy shift was announced just days after Measure T was approved, Weiss said tunnel support has been percolating up through the ranks of the agency's Bay Area district ever since the tunnel study was released one month ago.
"You can sense a change in the feeling at the building," Weiss said, "but given our cautious nature and the fact that people cling to things we say . . . Everyone was hung up on the funding issue for a long time. When the study came out and the cost was close to the bypass, a lot of people's minds changed.
"It's our task to be conservative with public money," he added. "That's our bottom line."
Weiss said the tunnel study played the biggest role in CalTrans' changed attitude. However, the fact that a 3-1 majority of county residents voted for Measure T will help CalTrans lobby for funding, as well as convince other government agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Fish and Game to support a tunnel, he said.
While the decade-long, litigious history of the Devil's Slide bypass has created much animosity against CalTrans, Weiss suggested such rancor may have been necessary to ensure a hasty decision was not made.
"We almost have to be forced into that kind of action," Weiss said of the switch. "There's no way the feds would have given us $2 million for a tunnel study unless we were thwarted (from building the bypass).
"If people want something really bad, they get it at a certain point."