Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, July 8, 2021 @ 3:53 p.m.
Caltrans Officials Say Schedule Change Increased Productivity at Last Chance Grade
With productivity “skyrocketing” at Last Chance Grade just two days after Caltrans implemented four-hour closures on U.S. 101, Project Manager Sebastian Cohen told Del Norters that schedule adjustments were a possibility, though he couldn’t say when.
Bridge work at Hunter Creek south of the slide presents further challenges for motorists and making adjustments, including doing the project at night, wouldn’t make a difference, Cohen told the public at a town hall meeting Wednesday.
“The bridge has been demolished and a one-lane bypass bridge is in place,” he said. “We would still have one lane.”
Cohen and his colleague, Caltrans transportation engineer, Jaime Matteoli, spoke to the current emergency project to stabilize the hillside on U.S. 101 at Last Chance Grade as well as the long-term solution of a bypass around the landslide.
District 5 Supervisor Bob Berkowitz and his colleague, Valerie Starkey, who represents Del Norte’s District 2 also fielded questions, primarily about how the public could be better informed of any potential changes.
Starkey offered to sit down with Klamath residents to allow them to share their concerns and suggestions face-to-face.
“That’s something I’m committed to do and Supervisor Berkowitz, I know, will join me in that,” she said. “If there’s another schedule change, I’m going to ask Caltrans to either reach out to Supervisor Berkowitz or myself so we can come down and hear directly from you.”
Cohen spoke about the reasoning behind the schedule change, which includes finishing the project by the time school starts on Aug. 30 and before the rains set in. He also gave Caltrans’ reasoning for why night work at Last Chance Grade isn’t feasible or safe currently, though he said that may also be a possibility “once we get lower on the slope.”
Since the landslide and rockfall occurred in February, Caltrans had closed U.S. 101 for two hours at a time to enable crews to work to shore up the hillside while still allowing people to travel through the area.
But crews were only getting 60 to 80 minutes of actual work done during the closures, Cohen said. Just before the road was set to reopen, crews had to hand-scale the area to remove any loose boulders to prevent cars from being struck by rocks and to remove the debris from off the highway.
As a result, according to Cohen, the window of time that travelers were allowed to go through the area “kept stretching longer and longer, diving into our two-hour closure.”
“We saw that this could stretch into the winter weather and, especially, into when school starts in late August,” Cohen said. “We realized something had to change.”
Caltrans developed the new schedule after spending about 10 days doing outreach to roughly 20 different entities, including local government, prison and hospital representatives as well as tribal officials, Cohen said. The department decided to implement two four-hour closures instead of two three-hour closures to get production up, he said.
“Yesterday was the first day of the full closure and we saw a drastic increase in production — even I’d say more than two to three times — which is exactly what we wanted to see,” he said. “I’d say in another week, we’ll know a lot more. Right now we’re basically monitoring things on a day by day and week by week basis.”
Though Cohen said it’s too soon to say whether the current closure schedule could be adjusted, Caltrans can change where and how traffic is staged on either side of Last Chance Grade. Motorists approaching the project will come to a kiosk where they can receive education about the project as well as an opportunity to go elsewhere, Cohen said.
Traffic lining up at Last Chance Grade isn’t supposed to block intersections, Cohen said. Caltrans asked the contractor to bring on 20 additional staff members to keep the onsite port-o-potties clean, hand out water bottles and granola bars as well as information.
Those staff people can also make sure residents’ driveways aren’t blocked, Cohen said.
Responding to Starkey, who asked if the staging area for travelers heading north on U.S. 101 could be established south of the Klamath River bridge, Cohen said that it’s an option.
“We can adjust the entire closure to a new location,” he said. “I would like to maybe try to facilitate having (driveways) stay open. We can put up signs, we can install a flagger who can physically be there if it was just a couple locations. If it was systemic thing that we need to address and it just means moving the entire queue, we can do that too.”
The ongoing emergency closures at Last Chance Grade stem from one slide that became active during rainy weather in February. It’s one of several different state and federally funded emergency jobs on that stretch of highway since 2012.
According to Cohen, the project, which includes installing anchor-wired mesh on the slope to prevent rock fall, is meant to keep the road open until the long-term project of bypassing the slide begins.
Caltrans is currently evaluating two potential methods of bypassing the landslide at Last Chance Grade, according to Matteoli. The first includes constructing a tunnel and carries an estimated $1.3 billion cost.
The second takes a “holistic proactive approach” to improving stability of the hillside, but keeps the road on its current alignment, Matteoli said.
Cohen said there’s more to the second alternative than keeping the road on its current alignment.
“It’s pretty substantial adjustments of the alignment and a lot of to-be-determined things that will be thought out from the geotechnical studies that are underway right now,” he said.
Though he said there was significant outreach to Redwood National and State Parks representatives, Pelican Bay State Prison representatives and other regional stakeholders, Cohen acknowledged the hardship, including loss of jobs and the inability to access medical care for Klamath residents. However, he said, they wanted to avoid a longer delay at Last Chance Grade that is “out of our control.”
“We will continue to monitor the site and we’ll do all that we can,” he said. “We want you to outreach to our local (representatives) so in any future schedule change, we can take everyone’s concerns into account.”
Wednesday’s town hall meeting will be recorded and available for those who were unable to tune into the meeting at lastchancegrade.com.