Memos say narrow tunnel is adequate

Feds say that `adequate' does not mean safe

Half Moon Bay Review, March 20, 1995

By Eric Rice

Internal communications among Federal Highway Administration tunnel engineers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggest that a tunnel through Devil's Slide as narrow as 46-feet wide would be adequate. So adequate, in fact, that the highway administration's lead tunnel expert reportedly would not want to testify in court against it.

According to a June 2, 1995 e-mail from Merrill Deskins, an environmental specialist in the FHWA's regional office in San Francisco, the Sierra Club could prove in court that a 48-foot-wide tunnel is adequate. The e-mail relates a conversation between Deskins and Tony Caserta, the FHWA's tunnel expert in Washington D.C.

"He (Caserta) thinks a 46- or 48-foot tunnel, with no median, would be all right," the e-mail stated. "He agreed that we could not dictate to the state what kind of tunnel to build, but he thinks the Sierra Club could find a tunnel expert to support the adequacy of a 48-foot tunnel. He said that he would find it difficult to testify in court that a 48-foot tunnel would not do the job."

Caserta could not be reached for comment.

Upper management at the FHWA, however, maintains that a tunnel that narrow would result in more accidents, including increased risk of head-on collisions.

Julie Cirillo, FHWA regional administrator in charge of the San Francisco office, and an expert in safety-related matters, said that from the standpoint of safety, a 48-foot tunnel "is not safe."

"Sure you can build a tunnel that way, but it's not going to operate very safe," she said in an interview Monday. "There is no margin for error."

Earlier this month, Pacifica resident Mitch Reid, a tunnel supporter, obtained a 30-page packet of letters and e-mails written by FHWA engineers in its San Francisco and Sacramento offices last spring.

The internal communications shed light on the give-and-take among FHWA engineers in deciding how wide a tunnel should be. They were written last year while the agency debated the parameters of a study of a tunnel as a solution to occasional road failures on Highway 1 at Devil's Slide. Reid also believes they illustrate that the FHWA's top management is not listening to its lower-level experts.

Reid said he believes the e-mails show that "the bureaucracy are making decisions over their own experts," decisions that are made arbitrarily and without scientific studies to back them up. "Basically, they (top management at FHWA) buy into (California Department of Transportation District Director) Joe Browne's recommendation and he has nothing to support it. I really think they're really trying to force this extra-wide tunnel on us to eliminate it from the process."

Width will be one of the issues studied during a comprehensive tunnel study that was approved last fall, but has yet to get under way. The width of a tunnel may prove to be an important factor in determining its cost and, therefore, feasibility. That is because the wider a tunnel is, the more rock has to be dug out in construction and the more expensive it becomes.

Browne, who supports a CalTrans-proposed4.5-mile inland bypass as the best solution to the Highway 1 problem, has insisted that a tunnel through Devil's Slide be between 58- to 66-feet wide. Tunnel proponents say 46 to 48 feet is adequate.

Other e-mails released to Reid suggest a smaller tunnel than Browne wants would be adequate. A structural engineer and a design engineer, both in the FHWA's San Francisco office, suggest that a 46-foot tunnel is even "desirable."

"I can support a two-way operation in the context of this DESIRABLE cross-section, as the full-width shoulders provide safe refuge for disabled vehicles/passing room around disabled vehicles, as well as serving as a clear recovery area for errant vehicles," wrote structural engineer Roland Nimis.

But Fred Hempel, the FHWA administrator who, with Browne, previously urged that the tunnel study look at widths of 66 and 58 feet, discounted the communications as part of the normal give and take used by the agency's staff in reaching a decision.

"It's not unusual to find employees with various viewpoints," Hempel said in an interview Monday.

"You almost always find something like this," he added. "If nothing else, it shows the honesty of our process that we release these (internal communications)."

Keith Harrison, an FHWA design engineer included in several of the e-mails, supported Hempel's decision when asked this week.

"He (Hempel) doesn't make those decisions in a vacuum," he said.

Hempel also stressed that Caserta and others who believe a 46-or 48-foot tunnel is workable are experts in tunneling, not in designing safe highways.

"We will want to get as much width as we can from a safety perspective," Hempel said.

People driving in tunnels naturally edge toward the center because the arc of the wall makes it appear closer than it is, leading to more head-on accidents, according to Cirillo.

Hempel emphasized that no formal endorsement of any tunnel width has yet been made. The tunnel study will examine widths of 66, 58 and 46 feet.

Half Moon Bay Review