James Van Loben Sels, head of the California Department of Transportation, last week reiterated his agency's top-priority commitment to building a tunnel at Devil's Slide.
Addressing the state Assembly Transportation Committee during an informational hearing on March 10, Van Loben Sels said CalTrans remains firmly committed to following through with a permanent repair of Highway 1. A 4,000-foot-long tunnel through San Pedro Mountain skirting the mountain's active slide area is proposed.
Assemblyman Ted Lempert, D-Palo Alto, who sits on the Assembly Transportation Committee, said Van Loben Sels' statement does not signal a change in policy by CalTrans. In November, after voters overwhelmingly approved a tunnel over the inland bypass, Van Loben Sels announced through spokespersons the agency's support for a tunnel. He has since expressed the same position in written letters to officials at the Federal Highway Administration.
But Lempert, whose district includes much of the Coastside, said last week's statement was notable because Van Loben Sels had never before spoken publicly about Devil's Slide.
Lempert said the comments reaffirm CalTrans' support for the tunnel, and could help hold the agency's feet to the fire to expedite the environmental studies and approvals still needed for the tunnel.
Some tunnel supporters have quietly complained that CalTrans is not moving fast enough on those studies. Those sentiments were voiced more forcefully last week when Lempert and State Sens. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francisco, San Mateo counties, and Lou Papan, D-San Bruno, fired off a letter to Van Loben Sels accusing CalTrans of not dragging its feet on environmental studies. The trio also chastised CalTrans for not properly informing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will play a role in the mitigation required for the red-legged frog, up-to-date on the tunnel proposal. They also cited lingering uncertainty among CalTrans staff as to the full scope of the tunnel as a potential danger point in the future.
At the hearing, Assemblyman Kevin Murray, chair of the Transportation Committee, also gave the tunnel a boost, reminding Van Loben Sels of broad public support for the tunnel, as well as the support of the Transportation Committee, which voted unanimously in support of a bill by Lempert pushing for expedited tunnel approvals.
In a March 11 letter to state Sen. Quentin Kopp, Van Loben Sels reported that environmental studies are on schedule to be completed by November 1998, but the "accelerated" schedule is already tight and "leaves little room for flexibility."