Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, Sept. 8 @ 6 p.m. / Local Government
Gitlin, Howard, Hemmingsen Trade Words Over STAA 197/199 Project Resolution; Gitlin Urges Board to Table Issue, Seek More Info from Caltrans
Two local agencies unanimously reiterated support for a project that brings highways 197 and 199 to federal trucking standards, but the Board of Supervisors wasn’t among them.
District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin on Tuesday opposed a resolution the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission brought to him and his colleagues, saying Caltrans hasn’t explained how the STAA 197/199 project would improve road safety.
Gitlin urged his colleagues to table the resolution, but after they refused, he cast the sole dissenting vote against it.
Gitlin’s statement drew backlash from supervisors Chris Howard and Gerry Hemmingsen who pointed out that the project has been a contentious issue for more than a decade.
Howard, referring to litigation that stalled the project’s construction in 2014, accused Gitlin of siding with conservation groups Friends of Del Norte, the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The three conservation groups successfully obtained an injunction in 2014 halting the project’s construction.
“You’re sitting here supporting EPIC, Friends of Del Norte, and you’re also supporting the Center for Biological Diversity,” Howard told Gitlin, “Groups you’ve spoken adamantly against in the last decade.”
Gitlin dug in his heals, arguing that since Howard’s employer, Alexandre Eco Dairy, is among a list of businesses supporting the project, the District 3 supervisor should recuse himself.
Gitlin also noted that the Local Transportation Commission’s resolution on the STAA 197/199 project would be an economic benefit to Del Norte County, but Walmart isn’t on the list of supporters.
“They’re probably the biggest importer of freight coming in and they’re not in support,” Gitlin said. “They say there’s no economic benefit in moving to larger trucks for their purposes.”
Gitlin noted that currently trucks with a maximum length of 65 feet are allowed on the corridor, but bringing the road to STAA standards will allow trucks with 75-foot trailers on highways 197 and 199.
The Local Transportation Commission’s resolution came to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors about three weeks after a federal judge in San Francisco granted the agency intervenor status in ongoing litigation surrounding the STAA 197/199 project.
The $34 million project seeks to widen three curves on U.S. 199 as well as replace a 96-year-old bridge. The project also includes widening two curves on State Route 197 near Ruby Van Deventer County Park.
Caltrans’ goal is to make the project safer for trucks meeting the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) standard, according to the staff report submitted to the Board of Supervisors.
County supervisors’ 4-1 vote came after the Crescent City Harbor District Board of Commissioners last week and the Del Norte Unified School District Board of Trustees on Aug. 27 unanimously declared their ongoing support for the project.
The project has been paid for with state and federal dollars since 2008, according to Local Transportation Commission Executive Director Tamera Leighton.
“The basis for the intervenor status is that elected officials who are elected by the public, and not the litigants … are the representatives of the public,” Leighton’s staff report states.
Friends of Del Norte representatives argue that the STAA 197/199 project would make the corridor more dangerous, not less. In a Tuesday Op-Ed on the Wild Rivers Outpost, Friends of Del Norte representatives stated the proposed improvements include widening several areas of the road by 12 inches instead of 48 inches.
“Friends of Del Norte are not opposed to safety improvements on Highways 199 and 197. Friends of Del Norte are opposed to the funding source and its requisite allowance of STAA trucks and the concurrent repercussions of greater numbers of large trucks,” the Friends of Del Norte Op-Ed states.
During the Board of Supervisors’ discussion Tuesday, Howard pointed to an earlier statement Gitlin had made about urging Caltrans to make recommended speed limits on U.S. 199 near Elk Valley Cross Road mandatory.
Gitlin, who is one of the transportation commissioners, said he tried to urge his fellow commissioners to ask Caltrans to create “safe speed corridors” on U.S. 199 but was discouraged from trying.
“(The issue) was deemed too difficult by each member of the transportation commission,” Gitlin said.
Howard, who made the motion supporting the resolution, said the California Chamber of Commerce, State Senator Mike McGuire, State Assemblyman Jim Wood and Congressman Jared Huffman support the STAA 199/197 project.
Hemmingsen urged Del Norte County residents to go to the Caltrans website about the STAA 197/199 project to get more information.
“Roger should have been involved with this since he’s been a supervisor and chooses not to,” Hemmingsen said. “He chooses to start picking at things that have already been discussed and already been explained. The road is not STAA accessible at this time. He neglects to say that part of it and thinks we’ll just let the STAA trucks go through. That is not the case. He is not speaking correctly.”