Tunnel is not `reasonable'

Pacifica City Council asks county for tunnel study nevertheless

By Eric Rice

Half Moon Bay Review, July 12, 1995

The final report on the environmental impacts of the proposed Devil's Slide Bypass was issued last week, bolstering the California Department of Transportation's efforts to gain final approval to build the controversial stretch of highway.

According to the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Martini Creek Bypass, the 4.5-mile bypass over Montara Mountain would cost less and be safer than a tunnel. It also states that traffic noise from the bypass would not seriously impact Farallone View Elementary School or wildlife in McNee Ranch State Park.

Tunnel supporters picked up a vote of confidence from the Pacifica City Council Monday night, however. The council voted 4-0 to ask the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to encourage CalTrans to study a tunnel alternative to the bypass. The council is now poised to turn away from its decade-long support of the bypass and come out in support of a tunnel at its July 24 meeting.

The CalTrans study, with concurrence by the Federal Highway Administration, is the result of an order by now-deceased U.S. District Court Judge Robert Peckham that the noise impacts of the Martini Creek bypass be studied further to satisfy federal requirements. Although the study was done ostensibly to determine noise impacts, it also examined the feasibility and safety of a tunnel, which is supported by bypass opponents.

"This issue has been reviewed and it is determined that the tunnel is not a reasonable alternative because of its inconsistency with current planning policies, the lack of funding, and various safety and cost issues," the report states.

The report also states that a single bore tunnel would have to be 66-feet wide to adequately provide access for cars, bicycles, maintenance workers and emergency vehicles. At that width, the report states, a 4,450-foot-long tunnel would cost $126.8 million for construction alone. Annual maintenance of the tunnel would be $1.21 million, according to the study, compared with an estimated $340,000 annually to maintain the bypass.

The report also examines safety issues concerning tunnels vs. open roads, concluding that "accident history indicates a higher actual accident rate within local tunnels and their approaches than on a comparable highway."

Several tunnels suggested by tunnel supporters as comparisons, including the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, were examined and either fared poorly compared with the bypass or were determined not be similar enough to the proposed tunnel, according to the report.

CalTrans spokesman said the report was good news for the bypass.

"After reading the material, even stronger evidence is presented against the tunnel option that we had assumed before," said spokesman Jeff Weiss. "Frankly, I'm quite pleased it discussed the examples brought up by the Sierra Club because I felt they had to be held to light."

But a member of the Sierra Club, which together with two other environmental groups has sued CalTrans to stop the road, accused CalTrans of simply stating opinions as facts and ignoring "wonderful, wonderful comments from the public" which detail the bypass' shortcomings and tunnel's strengths.

"They simply state the opposite (of bypass opponents)," said Sierra Club spokeswoman Olive Mayer. "There's no analysis of the information put on the record."

Tunnel supporters assert that a single-bore tunnel need be only 46-feet wide, and that it could be built for $60 million with substantially less environmental impact.

As for the initial purpose of the study _ to determine noise impacts _ the final environmental study confirms earlier statements by CalTrans that it has abandoned a proposal for sound walls. Nothing is proposed to replace them.

In drafting the study, concerns were raised about potential noise at Farallone View and the community at large.

The study concluded the bypass would not create any noticeable effect upon the school since the existing highway is 300 feet closer to it than the bypass would be. Nor is Montara likely to be the victim of a "canyon effect," with automobile noise bouncing off the surrounding hills and bombarding Montara.

"The consultant is not aware of any scientific studies of `canyon effects' which would allow for justifiable inclusion in the noise predictions," the report states.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, has done an about-face, reversing earlier demands for extensive and costly mitigation, including relocation of campgrounds and funding to improve recreational opportunities on the abandoned road. It is now only seeking "to continue the joint planning effort for the portion of CalTrans property which is adjacent to state park lands."

Lennie Roberts, another bypass litigant, complained that the report did not address environmental issues with regard to what she sees as the tunnel's environmental superiority over the bypass.

Kate Smit, with Citizens for the Tunnel, reacted similarly to the report.

"Upon examination . . the most obvious point which comes to mind is that CalTrans just doesn't like tunnels," Smit said. "They fail to identify a single benefit to a tunnel solution at Devil's Slide, even the most obvious, which is that a tunnel solution would have no negative environmental impacts."

A report on that topic may or may not be forthcoming. CalTrans is currently engaged in a "re-evaluation" of the original Environmental Impact Study prepared in 1986 to determine if it needs to be updated. If CalTrans determines that no new significant environmental impacts have arisen since 1986, no new environmental report will be prepared.

Tunnel supporters fear CalTrans will try to bury the tunnel proposal by making its remarks in this latest study its only comment and rejecting the need for a more extensive study.

CalTrans spokesman Weiss said the "re-evaluation" is not complete and the agency had not yet decided whether an update is needed.

The Pacifica City Council is already convinced one is needed, however. On Monday night, it voted to ask the Board of Supervisors to use its influence with CalTrans to have a complete tunnel study done. The Pacifica council had previously asked CalTrans itself, but council members felt the request was ignored.

The council also agreed to put the matter of its formal position in support of the Martini Creek bypass on its agenda for reconsideration in two weeks.

"They need to say how they came to those figures (cost estimates)," said Pacifica Mayor Barbara Carr.

With the issuance of the final report last week, CalTrans is poised to seek a lifting of the injunction which has prevented construction of the bypass. Weiss said that in the end of July or early August, CalTrans will ask U.S. District Judge Lowell Jensen to lift the injunction, claiming all environmental study requirements have been met.

If the injunction is lifted, several roadblocks remain before any construction could begin. The plaintiffs could still appeal the lifting of the injunction and then appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

CalTrans also still has to buy about one-third of the right of way for the bypass, as well as secure permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, Board of Supervisors and California Coastal Commission. Weiss said it would be "at least a year and a half if things go smoothly" after lifting the injunction before any construction could begin, longer if condemnation proceedings are needed.