Caroline Griffith, EcoNews Journalist
Last Chance Grade is in bad shape. That’s easy to see. What is more difficult to discern is what the possible solution might be. Between 1997 and 2019, $85 million has been spent repairing the 3 mile segment of 101 between Klamath and Crescent City, but all of those repairs have just been temporary fixes. According to Caltrans, the road at Last Chance Grade has been moving inches per year since the 1930’s and repair has been ongoing for years. But now, Caltrans is embarking on the preliminary environmental studies to determine what a long-term fix for this vital piece of infrastructure might be.
What makes the fix so difficult is a mix of geology, old growth forest, sensitive species, cultural resources and the patchwork of public and private lands that a new stretch of highway would pass through. Because the highway would potentially pass through Redwood National and State Park land, Caltrans has held public meetings about the project, which is not something it normally does. The complexity of the construction and all of the factors involved make this a project that is likely to face opposition, no matter which potential route is ultimately chosen, so the agency is working to mitigate public outcry by soliciting some public input.
The UNESCO website describes the cultural significance of the Last Chance Grade area: “Archaeological surveys, test excavations, research and consultations conducted over the past 20 years have resulted in the recording of 50 prehistoric archaeological sites, 19 historic sites and at least 21 places of significance to local Indian communities. The archaeological sites span 4,500 years and represent changing settlement and subsistence systems.” Caltrans has formed a Cultural Resources Committee to work with local tribes. In addition to the cultural resources of the area, the Del Norte Coast is also home to rare and threatened species and old-growth forests, further complicating the process.
The project is currently entering the geotechnical studies phase. All of the proposed alternate routes run through historic landslide areas, so geologists will drill down to see how the land is moving and how construction will affect groundwater. To get an accurate picture of how the land is moving and how water is moving through the land, Caltrans needs multiple years of data on the geotechnical aspects of the land so it doesn’t simply replicate the issues that have caused the problem in the first place. Once it has started the drilling for geotechnical studies, it will begin the CEQA process for the rest of the project. Caltrans has budgeted $50 million and 6 years for the environmental studies process.
Alongside the geotechnical studies, throughout the next 6 years Caltrans will also be conducting ground surveys, botanical studies (2 years), wetland delineations, US Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Assessments, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Biological Assessments, traffic studies, and CEQA/NEPA Public Workshops and comment period. Construction is set to begin sometime between 2031 and 2039.
In the meantime, if Last Chance Grade fails, the trip between Klamath and Crescent City will turn into an 8 hour, 320 mile detour. Maps of potential alternate routes and more information on the timeline are available at lastchancegrade.com.