The Devil's Slide tunnel study requested by county officials has received a boost in the arm from the Federal Highway Administration, which has preliminarily approved most of what the county requested for the study.
In a memo to county supervisors last week from County Counsel Tom Casey, Casey stated that Fred Hempel, division administrator of the FHWA, "responded very favorably to most of the board's requests.
"He had no disagreement with the scope of the study," and anticipates "that the re-evaluation will be a broad one that will address whether a tunnel could be the best option."
Last month, supervisors unanimously approved sending the FHWA a letter outlining what they would like to see in the independent tunnel analysis and demanding that the California Department of Transportation not be involved.
While CalTrans would still come up with an estimate of annual tunnel maintenance costs, experts from FHWA's environmental, legal and safety departments in Washington would be consulted on other aspects of the tunnel, the memo stated.
"Their technical expert on tunnels from (Washington) D.C. will also be involved and he views this as ensuring that the study will properly consider the tunneling technology and design," Casey noted. "(Hempel) also points out that the study will be broader than tunnel issues and will involve consultants on biology as well as tunnel issues."
The agency's tunnel expert is Tony Caserta. Montaran Scott Boyd, who met with Caserta in Washington recently, said he is considered "the nation's tunnel expert."
"He seems pretty level-headed," Boyd said. "He doesn't seem at all interested in the local politics."
The FHWA has also tentatively approved the board appointing one person to a committee that would in turn determine who participates in the study. The Board of Supervisors had requested that either of the deans of the Schools of Engineering from Stanford or the University of California at Berkeley approve the consultant hired for the study.
Casey said Hempel said a condition cannot be imposed that the consultant have no prior experience with CalTrans, but it can be stipulated that the consultant have no involvement in the Devil's Slide project. Also, the advisory group proposed to keep an eye on the study as it progresses would not have the authority to dictate how it is performed, Casey stated.
Sierra Club Devil's Slide Campaign spokesman Chris Thollaug said the memo is an "encouraging" sign, but added, "The question is what is it they're not willing to entertain?"
The Board of Supervisors is supposed to receive a formal response to the request within a week.