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Devil’s Slide tunnel expected to open in 2012, but questions of pedestrian safety remain

By Jamie Hansen | 7 Mar 2011

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Highway 1 follows these jaw-dropping cliffs south of Devil's Slide via a route similar to the one the old Ocean Shore Railroad took. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

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Early next year, the $342-million Devil’s Slide tunnel project on Highway 1 is expected to open, allowing traffic to pass through Pacifica, under Montara Mountain, and access the San Mateo County coast without fear of rockslides or road closures.

The nearly 1.5 miles of tunnel will solve a century-old problem and end an epic battle between environmentalists and the California Department of Transportation — Caltrans — over whether the pass should have been converted into a six-lane freeway. But many residents are already gearing up to solve another age-old problem: making the highway pedestrian-friendly.

“This area is known as the 400 feet of danger,” said El Granada resident Len Erickson, pointing to an area north of Half Moon Bay known as “Surfer’s Beach.” It’s a popular surfing spot aside Highway One where surfers and tourists must park on the east side of the road, then haul their surfboards and picnic baskets across fast-moving traffic to the beach.

As chair of the newly-formed Highway 1 Citizens’ Committee, Erickson is collaborating with the San Mateo County Department of Parks to create an improvement plan for the portion of the highway that stretches from Devil’s Slide south to Half Moon Bay, commonly known as the Midcoast.

Surfer’s beach is just one of a slew of problems that San Mateo County Parks identified when it conducted a $126,000 study, funded by a Caltrans grant, in 2009. The “Highway 1 Improvement and Mobility Study” is the first stage in a process that parks director Dave Holland hopes will, for the first time, create a safe, consistently pedestrian-friendly environment on the coast.

Through a series of community workshops, the study found several challenging  problems in the area from Half Moon Bay north to Surfer’s Beach. Congestion during commute hours and what the study called “unavoidable gridlock” topped the list. In addition, Highway 1 separates residents from their beaches, often without a safe way to cross. Dangerous intersections, unpredictable speed limits, and areas prone to erosion and washouts also plague the highway.  This May, a second study will address the area from Surfer’s Beach north to the Devil’s Slide tunnel.

The problems the study identified aren’t new. In fact, they trace back to the days before Highway 1 even existed. In the early 19th century, the Ocean Shore Railroad first  cut a path down the rocky coast, hoping to lure San Franciscans to buy up land in the area developers called “God’s Green Footstool.” The land-selling scheme never really took off, and the railroad lasted only until 1920, by which time cars had become commonplace. Trains were less used. And in 1937, Highway 1 replaced it.

According to local historian Barbara VanderWerf’s written history of the area, Highway 1 fulfilled two of the failed Ocean Shore Railroad’s promises: providing the area a commuting route and visitor access. But it also inherited the railroad’s problems. Many residents believe finally fixing those problems would improve life on the coast.

“Highway one is the only point of access between our villages and neighborhoods,” Erickson said.

The lengthy study outlines a host of potential solutions. Among the most significant: re-designating Highway 1, currently an expressway, as a rural highway; converting lighted intersections to roundabouts; regularizing speed limits; moving the road inland in areas prone to erosion; and streamlining local pedestrian trails into a continuous, safe path from Half Moon Bay to Devil’s Slide.

While most residents seem to support the improvements, some question how realistic implementing them will be. Getting Caltrans to create tunnels at Devil’s Slide, rather than an above-ground, six-lane expressway, was a hard-won battle for local residents and environmentalists. Lennie Roberts, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills, helped lead that decades-long fight. Now, she’s skeptical that Caltrans will go along so easily with this new, extensive batch of plans — especially when the state’s budget is tight and getting tighter.

“This is a state highway,” Roberts said, “and that means you can’t do anything with out Caltrans’ support.”

She and others have raised concerns about the roundabouts, which the plan suggests could replace traffic signals as a way to reduce gridlock. Some say the roundabouts will actually increase travel time; Roberts worries they will have a larger ecological footprint than stoplight intersections and could harm sensitive wetland habitat that currently borders the intersections.

But Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, a member of the Highway 1 Citizens’ Committee who also fought for the Devil’s Slide tunnels, says she’s seen a major change in the Caltrans’ attitude. She noted a public referendum, Measure T, that created a mandate for the tunnel in 1996.

“I’ve really seen a huge shift in mindset” in Caltrans, she said. “After the passage of Measure T, they’ve seemed much more open to community collaboration.”

Bob Haus, spokesman for Caltrans, agreed in an email, writing that in the ten years he’s worked with Caltrans the agency has always sought feedback from both politicians and community members.

Kersteen-Tucker agreed with Roberts  that funding the proposed changes could be problematic, particularly when the state is strapped for cash, but she still supported the plan’s proactive approach: “You have to start somewhere.”

Don Horsley is the coast’s newly elected representative on the San Mateo County board of supervisors. He participated in the 2009 planning process before he was elected and seems supportive of its suggestions.

He says the challenge will lie in getting Caltrans’ attention.

“Caltrans is in a very tough place, with lots of different projects wanting attention,” he said. “The question is, will we be their priority?”

Horsley thought there was a good chance they might take notice, since the erosion-prone sections of Highway 1 make the need for renovations more pressing. At Surfer’s Beach, for instance, planners worry that the highway could simply wash away in a big storm. “We could help Caltrans address some of their long-term issues,” he said.

In response to those concerns, Haus responded that Caltrans had reviewed the study and supports the idea of improving congestion. But since the improvements would address local problems, he said, sources of funding would be more limited. He said money would either have to come from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, from a special Caltrans improvement fund or from city funds.

As far as prioritizing Surfer’s Beach for erosion control, Haus said Caltrans has no plans to relocate that section of highway. He explained that the agency installed erosion preventions in 2000. “It is being monitored, and any erosion has been minimized,” he said.

For now, the citizen’s committee, formed this January, hopes to tackle two achievable goals: improving a dangerous intersection near Surfer’s Beach and having the legislature to re-designate Highway 1 as a rural highway, rather than an expressway.

Larger and more controversial issues, like building roundabouts and relocating the highway, could take years to implement. That’s if the county and the citizen’s committee can secure the needed funding and support — which, the planners readily admit, is always a challenge on the coast.

 

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