Voters may get a chance to decide next year whether they want a tunnel built in place of the crumbling section of Highway 1 that crosses Devils Slide.
Fed up with begging bureaucrats to act, a coalition of environmental and citizens groups will start gathering signatures for a ballot initiative rewriting San Mateo County's coastal plan so it would mandate construction of a tunnel rather than a 4.2-mile Devils Slide bypass cutting over Montara Mountain.
Tunnel advocates have concluded that an initiative is their best shot at overcoming resistance from Caltrans, which long has wanted to abandon the unstable cliffside roadbed at Devils Slide and reroute Highway 1 along an inland bypass.
To qualify it for next year's November ballot, supporters must gather 22,019 signatures before May 25. A few months ago, the groups gave San Mateo County supervisors a petition with more than 8,000 signatures gathered on the coast supporting the tunnel. Backers say they have no doubt that they can collect enough signatures countywide to force a vote.
''This is the one way that citizens can be sure a tunnel will be done,'' said Lennie Roberts, founder and co-leader of the coalition, called Save Our Coast. ''Caltrans has to get a coastal permit from the county for whatever Devils Slide project it finally does, and the coastal plan dictates what permits can be issued.''
Devils Slide got its name from the 300 yards of earth that has been slipping down the mountainside onto Highway 1 for decades. Falling rocks, mudslides and crumbling pavement have closed the treacherous road between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay repeatedly for decades, disrupting both communities. The longest road closing in Devils Slide history lasted more than five months this year and cost more than $1.4 million to repair.
For three decades, environmentalists have fought the California Department of Transportation's plan for the inland bypass, complaining it would require blasting passes through the mountainside so large that they would destroy local ecosystems and send a constant stream of silt pouring into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Since the bypass fight began, Montara Mountain has become the site of McNee Ranch State Park, which the bypass would slice into two.
The county's coastal plan now calls for a bypass to be built. But the ballot initiative launched Tuesday would ban the bypass and mandate that a tunnel be built ''to preserve the streams, parks, watersheds, scenic beauty, endangered species, wildlife and other vital natural resources of the San Mateo coastside.''
''At long last, a consensus solution is in sight,'' said Michael Vasey, a former Pacifica City Council member. ''The light at the end of the tunnel is a tunnel.''
Supervisor Ruben Barrales, who worked with Supervisor Ted Lempert to persuade Caltrans to hire a contractor for an independent study of the tunnel plan, would not say whether he supports the ballot initiative.
''I'm in an awkward position here,'' Barrales said. ''I would rather wait to see what the results of the independent study are, to see whether the tunnel is really viable. But, be that as it may, the people have a right to vote on this.''
Caltrans spokesman Greg Bayol warned that a tunnel could cost as much as twice what the bypass would.
''Our last estimate for a tunnel was $130 million, and we just don't see where that kind of money is going to come from,'' Bayol said. ''We would have to begin the process all over again, including the environmental reviews, and since the tunnel isn't funded, then funding would have to be found.'' The bypass already has $50 million in authorized federal funding.
Tunnel supporters say Caltrans' estimate of tunnel costs is ridiculously high. Outside experts have placed the price tag at between $50 million and $75 million.
''No tunnel expert we talked to could begin to justify or even understand the numbers that Caltrans has been talking about,'' said Chris Thollaug, chairman of the Sierra Club Devil's Slide Campaign. ''This is an initiative about a state transportation bureaucracy that has been unresponsive to the public and to their elected representatives, and a group of citizens who believe they can do something about it.''
--Discuss environmental concerns involving Devils Slide: Use keyword MC Talk, click on Browse Boards. Choose Current Affairs, then the Environment folder. Or, choose Letters for Publication in the scrolling window.
MERCURY CENTER ID: me51525t Transmitted: 95-11-15 06:24:49 EST