This article appeared in the Half Moon Bay Review on October 23. Gary Deghi is a former member of the Half Moon Bay City Council and is vice president of Huffman and Associates, a welands regulatory consulting firm in Larkspur.
Tunnel Study May Make Bypass an Impossibility

People seem to be stunned when I make the following points regarding the Devil's Slide debate:

There are still some in our community who believe a tunnel is somewhat speculative and that, once the tunnel feasibility study is completed, CalTrans can start building the bypass. For the reasons outlined below, it may now be nearly impossible to build the bypass.

Bot the tunnel and bypass require additional environmental studies before they can be constructed. The recent tunnel study shows that a tunnel is technically feasible and similar in cost to the bypass. Therefore, the Devil's Slide Bypass Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) published in 1986 must be updated to include a complete evaluation of the tunnel alternative. Even in the absence of a tunnel alternative, CalTrans must prepare a supplement to the 1986 EIS to pursue the bypass project because Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulations require a re-evaluation of any environmental document more than three years old, and because significant new issues have arisen that were not evaluated in the prior environmental study.

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For example, new evaluations are required to determine the siltation effects resulting from grading 5.9 million cubic yards of soil for cuts and fills for they bypass, and the effects this would have on the recently designated marine sanctuary and on th San Pedro Creek population fo steelhead trout, proposed for listing as an endangered species. The red-logged from, recently designated as a threatened species under federal law, and a population of a state-listed endangered plant have both recently been discovered in the bypass alignment and must be studied.

Up to now, CalTrans has resisted conducting anything other than an internal review of these issues. This is why it was a veritable revelation Oct. 7, when, at the Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in Pacifica, John Schultz of FHWA announced that both the tunnel and bypass alternatives would be the subject of a Supplemental EIS that would undergo public review. I am confident this Supplemental EIS will demonstrate the tunnel is the preferred alternative from an environmental standpoint. In fact, a Supplemental EIS could be completed more efficiently if the tunnel was selected now as the preferred alternative because the tunnel clearly has less environmental impacts than the bypass.

It is important to point out the reasons it is highly unlikely CalTrans could obtain the permits needed to construct the bypass. To do so, CalTrans must obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill wetlands under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency's Section 404(b)(1) guidelines force CalTrans to prove there is no practicable alternative to the bypass that does not impact wetlands. Under the regulations, the Corps could only issue a permit for the project that was the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative." Based on the recent tunnel feasibility study, the tunnel is clearly practicable based on the "cost, existing technology and logistics" cited in the regulations. The tunnel would involve a small wetland fill in reg-legged frog habitat, but the impacts to wetland and endangered species, as well as to parkland and other coastal resources, are far less than for the bypass. Therefore, the tunnel is clearly the least environmentally damaging alternative, and may be the only alternative to solving the Devil's Slide dilemma that can obtain permits from regulatory agencies.

Though there are general permit procedures that don't require such a rigorous evaluation of alternatives, the relevant regulatory agencies are expected to require CalTrans to satisfy the more stringent regulations for permit review based on the overall and cumulative effects of the bypass project on resources of national importance and the level of controversy surrounding the project (as evidenced by 35,000 signatures collected to put Measure T on the ballot). Because environmental impacts of the tunnel are much less than the bypass, the less stringent general permit procedures could be used for the tunnel. A wetlands permit for the tunnel could be obtained in about six months, as opposed to about a year for the bypass.

To those who argue that reliance on the tunnel solution is somehow speculative, I argue that reliance on the bypass is highly speculative given that current federal law could preclude CalTrans from obtaining permits for the bypass. By calling for a vote to amend the county's Local Coastal Program to allow a tunnel to be built, advocates of Measure T are acting responsibly to ease the implementation of the alternative that can most easily pass permit review. Members of the No on T group, Coastsiders for Solutions, Not Roadblocks, are ironically creating a roadblock to the implementation of the alternative that can solve the problem quickest.

To those who argue that funding is not available to a tunnel, I offer two points: it will require Congressional action to obtain the unfunded $64 million for the bypass just as it will be needed to obtain tunnel funding, and it does not seem plausible that the federal government, through its regulatory procedures, would require a tunnel be built and then not fund it.

Let's all work for the practicable solution, which can also be implemented the quickest and with the least environmental impact. Vote yes on Measure T.

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