Last Chance Grade safe for drivers according to Caltrans

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. - This May, Caltrans presented a plan to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, laying out a timeline to get an alternate route built to go around Last Chance Grade, a stretch of Highway 101 that has been slowly falling into the ocean. The plan has construction for a new road beginning in 2031 and completion of the road in 2039. According to Chairman Chris Howard, the members of the board want work done much sooner.

Jaime Matteoli is the project manager in charge of the Last Chance Grade plan.

"The 2031 timeline is really related to a worst case scenario," Matteoli said.

But for Superintendent Jeff Harris from the Del Norte Unified School District, the timeline is not soon enough.

'I understand the timeline," Harris said. "But when it comes to safety, i would hope that we would be able to find a way to make it happen sooner rather than later."

Building an alternate around the grade is not something that can happen quickly according to Matteoli. he said that first, environmental factors must be taken into consideration.

"Some of the alternative routs would go through old growth redwood groves," Matteoli said.

In addition to this, certain routes would go through both state and national parks and private and tribal land according to Caltrans representative Myles Cochrane.

However, Cochrane thinks that people have a misconception about the safety of Last Chance Grade.

"We would not have that stretch of roadway open if it was not safe for the traveling public," Cochrane said.

Cochrane said the grade is susceptible to slides because it sits in a place where the earth underneath is constantly moving and that Caltrans has a real time monitoring system installed at the grade that measures geological activity. Caltrans uses information from the system to predict slides on the grade, such as the slide that happened last winter.

'We had actually been aware that that was happening, well before the roadway had closed," Cochrane said. "We had kept an eye on that location and made sure that we kept the traveling public safe."

Cochrane said that if the road was ever determined to be unsafe it would be shut down, but for now maintaining it is the only option until a long-term solution can be reached.

"Caltrans, just as much as anybody else,really wants to find a long-term, permanent solution for that area so we can stop throwing all those maintenance and repair dollars," Cochrane said.

Maintaining the grade has cost Caltrans $50 million since the 1980s, but according to Matteoli, this is significantly cheaper than finding an alternative

"The cheapest alternative will cost us $300 million and the most expensive alternative will cost around $1.2 billion," Matteoli said.

Caltrans is currently working with the Federal Highway Administration to get funding for the project. For now they will continue to do research to find the best alternate route.

"We're going out there and seeing if there are stability issues and looking at the alignment, seeing if we need to make adjustments or changes to those before we get fully funded," Matteoli said.

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