Declaring the California Department of Transportation biased concerning Devil's Slide, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors reversed itself Tuesday, unanimously agreeing to demand an independent tunnel-feasability study.
Supervisors rejected CalTrans' claims it could produce a credible study itself and agreed that a neutral party, not CalTrans, should choose an independent tunnel expert to conduct the review.
The board delayed action on the matter until either Sept. 26 or Oct. 3 while a subcommittee of two supervisors draws up specific language as to what information it wants from the study and how it wants it collected.
On Tuesday afternoon, a CalTrans spokesman indicated that the state agency still wants to play a role in the study. Jeff Weiss said CalTrans wants to work with the board in choosing a contractor for the study. He said federal bidding requirements ultimately leave the decision up to CalTrans and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
But board President Ted Lempert said that supervisors intend to bypass CalTrans' involvement altogether. He said the board hopes to convince the Clinton Administration and local Rep. Tom Lantos, whose district includes the Devil's Slide section of Highway 1, to pressure the FHWA to accept the board's parameters for the study.
Tuesday's meeting represented a dramatic reversal of fortune for Lempert and Supervisor Ruben Barrales, both of whom came out on the losing end of a 3-2 vote by the board in April when they asked that the tunnel be formally studied. Lempert said he felt Tuesday's meeting finally "discredited" extremists on both ends of the debate _ environmentalists who only want to delay a permanent road repair, and CalTrans, which fears its authority and reputation are being threatened.
"Finally, today the vast majority of people who are in the middle started having a conversation," he said afterward, praising his colleagues for their switch. "I think it signified it was a reasonable debate; we're focused on getting a permanent solution, getting it quickly, and getting independent experts who talk in facts . . . In facts."
Given the vote in April by Supervisors Tom Huening, Mary Griffin and Mike Nevin not to request a tunnel study, tunnel advocates came to Tuesday's meeting expecting a battle. But it immediately became apparent that the recent decision by the FHWA ordering CalTrans to do a study had softened their opposition.
Before the public was even allowed to speak, Nevin launched a pre-emptive attack on CalTrans' credibility, citing "unfortunate comments" by CalTrans public affairs officer Greg Bayol. Bayol was quoted as saying that the agency would "re-evaluate it and say a tunnel is too expensive."
"That is not in the spirit of what the United States government said," Nevin explained, adding that it is now necessary to "get rid of that bias."
Reached Tuesday, Bayol said his past comments have always dealt with the cost of the tunnel. "Our first environmental study and our second environmental study have always shown that the cost of a tunnel was prohibitive," Bayol said. "There's no reason to believe that will change. If it does, it's a whole new ballgame."
Griffin said the recent FHWA ruling eased her fears that federal funding set aside for construction of the Martini Creek Bypass would be jeopardized.
Nevin proposed that the deans at the schools of engineering at either Stanford or the University of California at Berkeley recommend a qualified tunnel expert to do the study. The idea was supported by the supervisors as well as all 27 people who addressed the board, including supporters of both the tunnel and the Martini Creek bypass.
"I solidly support this effort to get the opinion of independent contractors," said Sierra Club spokeswoman Olive Mayer.
Coastsider Richard Gates said he was "very encouraged," but also noted that the three supervisors' switch was prompted not by the grass-roots tunnel campaign, but by the federal government. "You really don't listen to your constituents, but you do listen to federal government," he chastised.
Robert O'Leary with the Coastsiders 4 the Bypass said he supported the quest for an independent study. But he said his group wants to see in writing that the federal funds for the bypass will not be endangered.
Over the next week, Lempert, Nevin and County Counsel Tom Casey will draft a resolution spelling out exactly what is sought in the study. Much of it is expected to follow recommendations set down by Lempert and Barrales in a board memo last week. The memo suggests including FHWA requirements for tunnels, cost estimates, maintenance costs, the time to construct each option, and comparisons with the Martini Creek Bypass.