Jessica Cejnar / Friday, April 23, 2021 @ 1:01 p.m. / Infrastructure, Roads

Permanent Fix for Last Chance Grade Narrowed Down to Two Options

Traffic moves through Last Chance Grade in March during construction following a recent landslide. Photo: Jessica Cejnar

As Caltrans and GR Sundberg crews continue work to stabilize the slope at Last Chance Grade, state and federal officials have whittled down a long-term fix to two options they say will save $10 million and shave a year off the project timeline.

The two alternatives include an inland tunnel that avoids the landslide roughly 10 miles south of Crescent City, according to a Thursday news release from State Sen. Mike McGuire’s office. The second option consists of permanently shoring up slopes and hillsides along U.S. 101’s current route, according to the news release.

These alternatives were identified based on environmental and engineering data collected this year, according to the news release. Those studies were paid for by $50 million allocated through the California Transportation Commission, according to McGuire’s office.

Caltrans is currently exploring the feasibility of both options, spokesman Andrew Goetz told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Friday. Environmental studies are ongoing. A draft environmental report on the two options will be developed in 2022 and is expected to be in circulation in 2023, he said.

“We want to study the whole area of those two locations and those studies are going to continue,” Goetz said. “Alternatives will continue to be refined as we move forward and gather more data — as we study the geology and as we move forward with environmental studies.”

Last Chance Grade includes a three-mile segment of U.S. 101 starting at Wilson Creek to the south, according to Caltrans. Over the years, the agency had considered six possible alternatives for re-routing the highway around the landslide with a seventh option that would leave the current alignment as-is.

In the meantime, Caltrans has been conducting piecemal projects to keep traffic moving through the current alignment, according to Goetz. Ongoing work in response to a landslide in February is an example, he said. This "no-build approach" rebuilds sections of the road after it's been damaged, Goetz said.

Of the two final options, the first, Alternative F, will include an inland tunnel that’s just over a mile long while the entire route will be about 1.5 miles long, according to Goetz, who pointed to the Last Chance Grade website under Alternative F. The estimated construction cost is between $1.1 billion and $2 billion, according to the website.

According to Goetz, the second option — which includes “advancing a landslide mitigation alternative along the current route” — looks at all available technology along the one-mile long broken formation area to focus on a large intensive project at once instead of small reactive fixes as slides occur.

“The no-build is what we’ve got right now — there’s been no change,” Goetz said. “As slides happen, we go ahead and we fix them, but Alternative X is a proactive approach. It’s a large influx of funds that are going to look at the entire picture and really be proactive to mitigate and improve stability along the current alignment.”

Going with Alternative X, which would keep U.S. 101 within the current alignment, is not an option, Del Norte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Howard told the Wild Rivers Outpost. But, he noted, the tunnel option is one of the most expensive.

According to Howard, the $1 billion to $2 billion price tag for Alternative F represents one-fifth of California's total transportation budget.

"It's going to be a heavy lift," he said. "I'm not saying it can't be done. It'll take our federal partners to come on board to make that happen. We're in it for the long run and I hope to get it done sooner rather than later."

More than 80 people representing roughly 30 agencies were involved in the project analysis, according to McGuire’s news release. These stakeholders include elected officials, tribal representatives, business owners and residents, according to the news release.

Howard noted that these partners, which includes a coalition Congressman Jared Huffman established, did a good job figuring out which alternative would be the least impactful.

"It's super critical for this community not to be hung up on environmental litigation for years," he said. "We need a road now. I'm going to do whatever I can to chase down what is going to take a significant amount of both state and federal dollars to get this project done."

As for the current situation, motorists can continue to expect two hour closures of U.S. 101 at Last Chance Grade from Monday through Friday as crews continue to remove slide material, Goetz said. He said he didn’t have an update as to when that will change.

“It’s a dynamic situation with what’s going on at Last Chance Grade,” he said. “Things are constantly changing. It depends on everything from what type of weather we have in a given week to how much work we get done, whether that’s tree work or slope stabilization.”


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