Perhaps sensing that Last Chance Grade could be yet another disastrous Caltrans project, Congressman Jared Huffman stepped in and commissioned the creation of the Last Chance Grade Stakeholder Working Group. Elected officials from Humboldt and Del Norte County, three tribes, members of the public, business interests and environmental organizations, including EPIC, have a seat at the table. Over the next ten meetings, the group is tasked with reaching consensus to recommend one or two alternatives to Caltrans that would be the “preferred” alternative(s) to address the geological instability and potential for roadway failure at Last Chance Grade.
Thus far, the stakeholders have meet twice, toured the slide area and spoken with Caltrans’ geotechnical engineer about the slide and learned about existing construction fixes to the roadbed. According to Caltrans, the slide is nearly one mile long, about 2,500 feet wide and at a minimum 250 feet deep. The sheer size of the slide, the steepness of the cliff and the composition of the geology make the project area difficult to design around. Caltrans repaves the roadway monthly to combat sinking. The stakeholders are exploring all viable options including using the existing right of way, by way of a viaduct, and a tunnel.
This multi-stakeholder process is the first for Caltrans District 1. Perhaps the agency is learning that the community deserves an honest and open discussion about the social and environmental impacts of highway development? This process is a far cry from the way in which Caltrans District 1 first attempted to fast-track approval of the STAA highway-widening project at Richardson Grove State Park back in 2007. For the past seven years, EPIC has been calling on the agency to explain its decisions, take into account community concerns and operate in accordance with the law. “These should not be ridiculous expectations for a public agency,” said Natalynne DeLapp, Executive Director of EPIC. “However, three contentious lawsuits: Richardson Grove, Willits Bypass and the Smith River’s 199/197 projects have shown that Caltrans was not forthcoming with the public or respecting our laws.”
Caltrans has an opportunity to get it right with Last Chance Grade. There is little question among EPIC staff that the project has a legitimate need: to maintain motorist safety and connectivity of the major highway between Oregon and California. “We appreciate the opportunity to participate in the process and will work cooperatively with the stakeholders to find solutions that will adequately address the needs of the community, while protecting the rare and sensitive environments,” said Natalynne. “As this project unfolds, EPIC will continue to advocate for full public transparency and protection of old-growth redwood forest and salmon habitat values.”