Bowing to public pressure, the Federal Highway Administration has ordered the California Department of Transportation to re-examine the viability of a tunnel through Devil's Slide.
Tunnel supporters welcomed the news as long overdue, but a CalTrans spokesman noted that the decision also reconfirms the 4.5-mile Martini Creek Bypass as the preferred alternative to reroute Highway 1 at Devil's Slide.
The decision was a victory for environmentalists who have been waging a campaign since April to get CalTrans to re-study a tunnel.
"I'm glad to see the Federal Highway Administration responding to the extensive public comment encouraging the study of a tunnel alternative," stated Chuck Kozak, chairman of the Committee for the Permanent Repair of Highway 1, one of three groups suing CalTrans to prevent construction of the bypass. "But I'm concerned that CalTrans lacks the expertise to properly evaluate a tunnel project. Their response so far has been to ignore all outside engineering recommendations and propose a tunnel design so inflated in scope that the cost became prohibitive."
CalTrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said the agency will do the study, albeit at the insistence of the Federal Highway Administration.
"The FHWA wants us to do it again," Weiss said. "We're trying to give the people what they want discussion-wise."
He claimed previous estimates clearly show that a tunnel is too expensive.
"We'll look at the tunnel," he added, "but given our preliminary studies we don't think any of our information is going to change. . . . It's still a matter of funding."
Jay Combs, with Coastsiders 4 the Bypass, questioned the value of a tunnel study, saying that if it comes back that the tunnel is not feasible, the Sierra Club will claim the study was flawed.
"I don't know anything positive would come of it," Combs said.
"Opponents have not been sincere," he added. "Their slogans are think tunnel, not build tunnel."
The FHWA's decision, known formally as the Record of Decision, was published Aug. 10 in the Federal Register. It was prepared as the last step in fulfilling a court requirement that noise impacts of a bypass be studied further. The court asked for the study as part of the 9-year-old litigation by three environmental groups to stop the bypass.
Many comments submitted for the noise study dealt not with noise impacts, but the viability of a tunnel. While the decision "reconfirms" the Martini Creek alignment, it acknowledges the demand by members of the public and environmental groups for more tunnel study.
The environmental impact report prepared for the bypass is 9 years old and parts may be outdated. CalTrans has already begun a re-evaluation, including whether the document complies with changes in environmental law since 1986, such as the proposed addition of the red-legged frog to the Endangered Species List.
The FHWA decision means a tunnel will be studied as part of that re-evaluation. The study is projected to be completed next spring or early summer.
The FHWA's decision was prompted by the grass-roots campaign of tunnel supporters, according to Bill Wong, senior transportation engineer at the FHWA's Sacramento office.
"We had to put that issue to rest," he said.
Kate Smit, a spokeswoman for Citizens for the Tunnel, said the issue won't rest, however, unless the county Board of Supervisors takes steps to ensure the study is complete and objective.
"We would like to see the board identify very clear requirements for a tunnel study," she said, including meeting with people outside CalTrans who build tunnels.
Ted Lempert, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, said he wants CalTrans to study the tunnel as if it were the preferred alternative.
"When things are a preferred alternative, things happen," he said.
However, Lempert was reluctant last week to commit to revisiting the board's April vote in favor of the bypass.
The FHWA's decision prompted some softening of what has been hard-line opposition to a tunnel.
In June, Supervisor Mary Griffin characterized lengthy environmental studies that might be needed for a tunnel as "unconscionable disruption," and as recently as last month she reaffirmed her support for the bypass. Upon learning of the FHWA decision, however, she said her future position will be based on the findings of the tunnel study.
"The FHWA decision supports what San Mateo County residents have demanded _ no delay in the Martini Creek Bypass, protect the funds set aside for this project, and to also take one last look at the tunnel alternative. The project will move ahead, but not so hastily as to overlook what may be a viable alternative."
Griffin's opponent in the November election, Janet Fogarty, who announced at a tunnel fund-raiser Aug. 27 that she would be "the third vote for the tunnel study," applauded the FHWA decision.
"It's nice to see Supervisor Griffin has finally decided to consider the tunnel alternative," she stated, "but disappointing that she needed a decision from bureaucrats before she would listen to the people."
Lempert said the study must answer the question of funding definitively. He also suggested that if the bypass funding cannot be shifted to a tunnel, unspent federal emergency funds from the March rains may be available.
Bypass opponents maintain a 4,600-foot-long tunnel would be less expensive and create fewer environmental impacts than the bypass. They cite an estimate of $60 million to build a tunnel by San Francico tunnel builder Shank/Balfour Beatty, and CalTrans' own 1993 estimate of $77 million.
CalTrans' latest estimates for a tunnel range from $94-$126 million.
Bypass supporters believe that switching to a tunnel would endanger the federal funding and subject the project to lengthy delays for new environmental studies. They also claim that the real purpose of bypass foes is to prevent any construction and that a tunnel ultimately would be subjected to the same litigation as the bypass. Earlier this year, CPR1, the Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills promised to drop their lawsuit if a tunnel was approved.