Backers aim to put tunnel option to vote

Initiative would lock in tunnel as preferred Hwy. 1 solution

Half Moon Bay Review, Nov. 15, 1995

By Eric Rice

Initiative's full text

Saying that the time has come to not only think tunnel but to "act tunnel," supporters of a tunnel through Devil's Slide launched a petition drive Tuesday with the aim of having a countywide vote on the issue in November 1996.

"At long last a consensus solution is in sight," said former Pacifica City Councilman Michael Vasey, one of the speakers at a press conference at the county offices in Redwood City Tuesday afternoon. "From now on, it's time to think tunnel and act tunnel."

The initiative proposes to amend the San Mateo County Local Coastal Plan to specify a tunnel project as the preferred permanent solution to repeated closures of Highway 1 at Devil's Slide.

Environmentalists support a 4,600-foot-long tunnel to replace the existing Highway 1 alignment, which runs through an unstable cliffside area and has been closed twice, for several months each time, in the past 11 years. They believe it would cause fewer environmental impacts.

The California Department of Transportation supports a 4.5-mile inland bypass of Devil's Slide that was approved in 1986, but has been delayed by lawsuits by the Sierra Club, Committee for Green Foothills, Committee for the Permanent Repair of Highway 1 and Shamrock Ranch.

Last month, the county Board of Supervisors ordered an independent tunnel study be conducted. Its results are expected sometime next spring.

The initiative is being sponsored by two environmental groups, Save Our Coast, which led the successful 1986 Measure A vote to limit development in the unincorporated areas of the county, and Citizens' Alliance for the Tunnel Solution (CATS). CATS is a coalition of two grassroots groups, Mid-Coast-based Citizens for the Tunnel and Pacifica-based Pacifica's Tunnel Alternative for Highway 1.

The timeline set out by the group is to begin gathering signatures on Nov. 29 and turn them in by May 23. The group needs 23,000 signatures for the initiative to qualify for the November 1996 ballot, according to longtime bypass opponent Lennie Roberts. The group is shooting for 32,000, however, to provide a safe margin in the event some signatures are disqualified.

If the initiative qualifies, the Board of Supervisors would have until Aug. 6 to either enact it themselves or send it for a countywide vote on Nov. 5. If approved, it would still have to be passed by the California Coastal Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Initiative spokespersons said Tuesday that the initiative is being pursued in conjunction with the independent tunnel study ordered by supervisors. But if passed, the initiative would lock in the tunnel as the preference regardless of the study's findings.

CalTrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said that regardless of the initiative, funding is still the "ground-zero element" in eventually implementing a permanent solution.

"Changing the local permitting process will make it more difficult to build the bypass," he said, "but it won't make building the tunnel any easier because funding is the key element."

Supervisor Tom Huening was critical of the initiative drive. He called it "disingenuous" to pursue an initiative that would require a tunnel regardless of the outcome of the tunnel study.

"It appears to me it's trying to pre-judge the issue to only allow a tunnel," Huening said.

"What we've heard for the last six months is give us a study and make it independent," he said, adding, however, that "it's kind of hard to argue that an issue not go to a vote."

Ed Stoehr, one of the founders of the Coastside Committee 4 the Bypass, said such an initiative indicates that "obviously these people aren't satisfied with any answer." He predicted that if the tunnel is found infeasible, but the initiative passes, the road might not be repaired at all, causing property values to plummet.

But Vasey and other tunnel supporters are convinced by the information they have already gathered from tunnel builders that a tunnel is geologically possible and would cost less than the bypass.

"We hope that by the time this (initiative) comes along we'll just be ratifying (the study results)," he said.

He also said that by aiming for a vote in November, the initiative should spur bureaucrats not to "noodle (the study) to death."

Montaran Chris Thollaug, a spokesman for Save Our Coast, said the initative was carefully crafted with very few specifications to allow the tunnel study to determine what kind of tunnel should be built. The initiative specifies that the tunnel must meet minimum state and federal tunnel standards. A provision was added that the tunnel would be for motorized traffic only _ no bikers or hikers _ both for safety considerations and to lop off between $20 and $30 million from the construction price, Thollaug said.

Lennie Robers, founder and co-chair of Save Our Coast, stated: "Changing the Local Coastal Plan is the one effective thing voters can do to ensure that a tunnel will be built and that there will be a permanent solution."

Speakers at Tuesday's press conference pointed to last week's elections in Half Moon Bay and on the Mid-Coast where candidates who favor the tunnel option were elected as a clear message that Coastside voters support the tunnel. The initiative's backers hope to use that to help convince bay-side residents to support it as well.

"I urge people throughout the county to give us the same margin" of support that voters on the coast did, said newly elected Mid-Coast Community Councilman Paul Perkovic, who was joined at the meeting by fellow Mid-Coast electees David Spiselman, Ric Lohman and new Half Moon Bay City Councilman Dennis Coleman.

Half Moon Bay Review