United push for tunnel funding

Half Moon Bay Review, Dec. 25, 1996

By Eric Rice

Officials are optimistic about securing $52 million in previously promised federal funding for a tunnel at Devil's Slide, but many questions remain about the up to $50 million that would still be needed to build the Highway 1 project.

About 30 people involved in the tunnel plan gathered Monday morning in Redwood City to discuss tunnel financing. At the meeting, federal officials clarified that only $52 million had been allocated for the Martini Creek Bypass, far below the amount needed to construct it. As a result, had Measure T failed, the state would now be seeking additional funding for the bypass, just as it is now doing for the tunnel proposal.

"If Measure T had failed, they would not have had the money to build the bypass," said Ruben Barrales, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

That same situation now appears to be staring tunnel supporters square in the face. U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, has promised to introduce legislation Jan. 7 to redirect the $52 million previously allocated to the bypass to the tunnel. But he told Monday's gathering not to count on any additional federal funding.

The tunnel is estimated to cost between $83 million and $106 million, excluding operational and maintenance costs.

"What Tom said was a dose of reality," said state Sen. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francisco, who has been prodding the state director of the California Department of Transportation for action on the issue.

"What he's saying is don't expect (additional funding). It won't happen."

According to Kopp, there are several possibile ways to secure the rest of the money, but each is clouded with uncertainty.

Congress could allocate more money for the project through another emergency relief bill, but Kopp pointed out that California has been getting more than its share of those funds in recent years.

Next year, Congress will allocate a new round of transportation funding under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA) and tunnel funds could come from that. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer will be involved in that and a representative of her office attended Monday's meeting.

Also, the tunnel could compete with other San Mateo County projects for the county's share of gas tax funds. The county receives between $35 million and $50 million a year in those funds. That would mean as much as an entire year's worth of the county's share of the gas tax would be directed to the tunnel, leaving no money for other projects in the county, a dim prospect, according to Kopp.

Despite the unanswered financing questions, Coastside residents who attended the meeting left it energized by the united effort that has mobilized behind the tunnel since its lopsided win Nov. 5.

"It was widespread that this is a solution for Devil's Slide," said Chris Thollaug who was joined at the meeting by fellow Coastsiders Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, John Barbour and Half Moon Bay Mayor Debbie Ruddock.

"They were very optimistic," he added of Lantos and Kopp. "Quentin and (Lantos) seemed to be working together very closely on the thing."

Thollaug said Lantos was upbeat about the tunnel being a "classic example" of a long, acrimonious problem giving way to a broadly supported new solution.

While many questions linger about funding, the issue of how much environmental study a tunnel would need is coming into focus. On Monday, for the first time, a representative of the Federal Highway Administration stated that a supplemental EIR will be required for the project.

It had been unclear which form of environmental study would be required _ a simple "re-evaluation," which would have taken only six months or so, but would not have allowed for public comment; a supplemental EIR, which could take 18-24 months to prepare; or a full new EIR, which would have taken even longer.

"It's at neither end of the extremes," Thollaug said. "During the election, statements were made that a whole new EIR would be required. That's not the case. The FHWA said that today."

A CalTrans representative announced that the agency will allow the Technical Advisory Committee, which oversaw preparation of the tunnel feasibility study, to make a recommendation in January as to which of six design alternatives is the most appropriate. But CalTrans is insisting upon making the final determination itself.

Kopp said he feels CalTrans still needs "prodding" and is not moving fast enough to resolve environmental issues. A meeting between CalTrans and the state Department of Fish and Game, Enviromental Protection Agency and Coastal Commission was tentatively set for mid-January to further address issues that will be studied in the supplemental EIR. That meeting may produce a more exact time frame anticipated to prepare the study.

"We're plugging along," Kopp said. "I think it'll take some time, but let's stay the course."

Half Moon Bay Review