The ceremony marking the highway's reopening was planned as an invitation-only affair _ a chance for the California Department of Transportation and its contractors to take a bow for the repair job. But it quickly turned into a political skirmish between pro-bypass and pro-tunnel factions.
"I think it's a great credit to CalTrans and the ingenuity of those who worked to restore the road," praised Dean Dunphy, state secretary for CalTrans.
"I also want to recognize the wonder of the First Amendment," he added, noting the phalanx of pro-tunnel signs behind him.
Highway 1 was closed Jan. 22 between Montara and Pacifica when a 170-foot section of the road began to slip due to heavy winter rain. CalTrans opted to repair the road, which eventually fell about eight feet, but supports the 4.5-mile Martini Creek Bypass as a permanent solution. Opponents are pushing for a 4,600-foot tunnel through Montara Mountain.
Tunnel supporters were almost shut out of Friday's ceremony.
Dozens of members of Pacificans for the Tunnel and Citizens for the Tunnel descended upon the highway barricades in Pacifica and Montara early Friday morning, joined by a handful of members of Coastsiders for the Bypass. Large banners reading "Imagine a tunnel" were hung on the both sides of Montara Mountain. Anne Weinberger, of El Granada, dressed up as "Captain Tunnel," sporting a cape, tights and large T on her chest. An airplane flying over the slide trailed a "Think Tunnel" banner.
But when Jim Stilwell, who was invited to the ceremony as a member of the county Harbor District Commission, showed up with a carload of tunnel supporters and signs such as "CalTrans is out of control" and "Bypass my ass," a California Highway Patrol Officer told them they couldn't carry their signs.
"By what right have you given away my (First Amendment) authority to carry this sign?" Stilwell demanded of the CHP officer. The officer relented, letting Stilwell and his companions keep their signs.
Officials with the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce had said beforehand the ceremony would not be political. Instead it was planned as a media opportunity to let the Bay Area know that local businesses are open and ready to welcome visitors back.
However, an agenda for the reopening ceremony passed out by CalTrans included the presentation of a plaque by Ed Stoehr, with the Coastside Committee for the Bypass, to CalTrans District Director Joe Browne.
Stoehr, a Half Moon Bay City Council candidate, planned to thank CalTrans for the repair, its support easing the commute and continued work toward the Martini Creek Bypass. But the presentation was scuttled by representatives of both chambers at the last second, after it became a "political issue," Stoehr said afterward.
As a result, speeches at the ceremony only hinted at the broader political battle being fought over Devil's Slide.
"Hopefully, we can soon look to working toward a permanent solution," said Fred Hempel, with the Federal Highway Administration.
"Reason will win out. Logic will prevail," Dunphy predicted.
In spite of the politcal jostling, local elected officials welcomed the road's reopening.
"It's time that the Coastside were united," said Pacifica Mayor Barbara Carr, joined by Half Moon Bay Mayor Naomi Patridge. "May all that go here go with God's blessing and safety."
At about 10:40 a.m. when several speeches concluded, Tom Routon of El Granada and Peg Girard of Pacifica were the first drivers through the reopened road. Routon and Girard won a raffle held by the Coastside and Pacifica chambers of commerce for the honor. The road was finally opened to the public at about 11:30 a.m.
Routon festooned his business van with red, white and blue streamers for his triumphant ride. He bought about 100 raffle tickets to increase his chances of winning.
"It's a great day for the town, for everybody that lives and works here," Routon said.
Routon's van and Girard's 1950 classic Ford station wagon simultaneously broke through a butcher paper banner spread across the road declaring "The Coast is Clear."
"It felt great," Routon said afterward. "I beat the Ford. In fact, we had the banner on the front end of the (van) most of the way through."
Joan E. Van Velsor, CalTrans senior geologist and project designer, said she believes people can feel safe driving over Devil's Slide.
"I don't think we have a high risk of catastrophic failure, otherwise we wouldn't open the road," she said, noting that her children drive over the slide to surf here.
Wyatt Kaelin, CalTrans resident engineer, added: "I think my crew and the contractor did a helluva job. We're on time, have a good alignment and have two lanes."