This opinion piece appeared in the June 28, 1995 edition of the Half Moon Bay Review.

Tunnel misinformation offers hope for solution

A matter of opinion
Gary Deghi

I was particularly encouraged by Supervisor Mary Griffin's letter (Review, June 14) wherein she explained her rationale for not requesting information from CalTrans regarding a tunnel alternative as a permanent solution to the Devil's Slide problem. I was heartened because her letter demonstrated that her decision was based on so many erroneous assumptions and so much false information, that perhaps there is a chance, if armed with accurate information, she would change her mind.

Particularly glaring is the misinformation contained in her letter regarding the timing of environmental reviews and potential implementation schedules for a tunnel alternative as opposed to the proposed Martini Creek Bypass. The following information is based on my near 20-year career as an environmental consultant and direct communication with officials from a number of state and federal agencies.

Griffin is incorrect in the assumption that a tunnel would take longer to implement than the bypass. There is a general misconception that when litigation for the bypass is cleared up this summer, bulldozers will spring into action. I'm amused by the orange signs that have sprung up everywhere claiming "Bypass is funded, build it now." Not only is the bypass nowhere near being fully funded, there is no chance of building it now, even if it were funded. A number of things must occur before CalTrans can start construction.

For instance, CalTrans must update the 1986 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulations and CalTrans' own guidelines require a re-evaluation of any environmental document that is more than three years old. CalTrans must provide an evaluation related to new circumstances that have arisen since the 1986 report, such as an analysis of impacts to the recently-designated marine sanctuary. Sanctuary officials are concerned over the 5.9 million cubic yards of material for cuts and fills required for the bypass and CalTrans' ability to retain this on-site without siltation of streams and ultimately the sanctuary.

Selected regulatory agencies told CalTrans at a meeting held May 10 that CalTrans may, in fact, be required to prepare an entirely new Supplemental EIS, a process that would easily take more than a year to complete. In addition, the bypass project description is based on plans, specifications and estimates prepared in 1986 that must be updated. Rights-of-way still need to be acquired.

The May 10 meeting was an inter-agency meeting held in preparation of CalTrans submittal of an application for a wetlands fill permit as required under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. This permit is required because the bypass involves the filling-in of several acres of wetlands which are regulated by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The amount of wetland impact and controversy involved in the project means that unless CalTrans can redesign the bypass to drastically reduce the amount of wetland impact, they may be required to obtain what is called an "individual" permit, rather than a more administrative "Nationwide" permit. To obtain an Individual permit, CalTrans must satisfy the EPA's Section 404 b1 guidelines. These guidelines would force CalTrans to prove there is no practicable alternative to the bypass that does not impact wetlands. It appears a tunnel alternative does not impact wetlands and would not require a Corps permit. If a tunnel was found to be practical based on "technical, cost and logistical factors," the Corps could not issue a permit for the bypass since the bypass would not be considered the "least environmentally-damaging practicable alternative." This permit process could take up to a year or two to complete. CalTrans faces an uphill battle getting a permit from the Corps to fill wetlands for the bypass and, at the end of that one-to two-year process, CalTrans might have to pursue the tunnel alternative after all.

It is clear that the new environmental analyses, design updates, purchase of rights-of-way and permitting hurdles have moved construction of the bypass to at least two years away and possibly longer. In my discussions with FHWA officials regarding a tunnel, it appears the proper approach to environmental review for the tunnel is to conduct a simple Environmental Assessment (EA) leading to the development of a "Finding of no Significant Impact." The prior bypass environmental review needed extensive analysis pursuant to specific federal requirements pertaining to impacts on wetlands, endangered species, historic resources, farmlands, floodplains and parklands (the latter being the 4(f) statement mentioned by Griffin). None of these considerations pose a problem for the tunnel where key issues would be primarily limited to engineering feasibility and safety.

Contrary to Griffin's contention, the tunnel alternative would not either directly or indirectly affect McNee Ranch State Park, and a 4(f) study would not be required. An EA on a tunnel would likely take about nine months. Design studies for a tunnel would be necessary and some rights-of-way would need to be purchased. This means a tunnel could be ready for construction in about two years. Estimates are that either the bypass or tunnel would take about two year in actual construction. The bottom line here is that a tunnel could be in operation certainly no later than the bypass and perhaps years sooner, especially if CalTrans was bogged down in a new Supplemental EIS, a complicated wetland permit process, or further litigation related to the bypass.

I join with responsible people on the coast in wanting a permanent solution to the Devil's Slide problem as soon as possible. While CalTrans continues to pursue an alternative fraught with environmental concerns and extensive environmental review and permitting requirements, our Board of Supervisors is wasting valuable time. They are the stumbling block keeping CalTrans from initiating the inevitable studies of the tunnel alternative. If indeed Griffin is interest in a "vote against holding the commuters and businesses of the coast hostage to unconscionable disruption," she would vote to study a tunnel alternative that can be implemented more quickly, cheaply and with far less impact to our sensitive coastal resources.

Studying a tunnel now does not jeopardize the partial funding for the bypass or the ultimate ability to implement a bypass alternative. I encourage everyone to join in lobbying the Board of Supervisors, other elected officials and CalTrans to get on with the process of conducting the long-overdue studies of a tunnel alternative.