On Thursday, Sept. 12, the California Coastal Commission meets in Eureka to vote on a project that could dramatically alter our experience of Highway 101 and Humboldt Bay. If we are lucky, it will lead the way to a long-sought-after bay trail between Arcata and Eureka. But the project could also result in increased speeds and “Mt. Indianola” -- a half-mile long elevated interchange at Indianola Cutoff. And if you are used to turning at Bayside Cutoff, or a number of other locations along the corridor, you may have to develop new routes, possibly even going a mile or two out of your way to circle back and complete your trip, since Caltrans proposes to close all the crossings except at Indianola Cutoff and Jacobs Avenue.
We have doubts that this will pass “go” at the Coastal Commission. In June and again last week, Coastal Commission staff recommended objecting to the interchange in its report to the commissioners. This was no surprise, since the Coastal Commission advised Caltrans six years ago that the interchange would be inconsistent with the Coastal Act. At issue is the use of wetland fill for a purpose the Coastal Act doesn't allow. Coastal staff recommended Caltrans look for less environmentally damaging alternatives. And over the years, the public -- even a city public works engineer -- asked Caltrans to study other alternatives as well.
Caltrans apparently didn't get the message: Rather than submitting a new concept, they proposed alternatives that were, by design, undesirable. A particularly choice example was a seven-lane, six-signal boulevard -- something a traffic engineering consultant, Nelson\Nygaard Associates, observed wasn't justified by available data. In a memo available on our website (www.humboldtbaykeeper.org), Nelson\Nygaard suggested some modifications to the Caltrans alternatives and recommended a few others that would be more likely to pass muster with the Coastal Act while meeting Caltrans' stated goals of safety and “level of service” (jargon for how long you have to wait to get through an intersection).
Viable alternatives matter, because there's more at stake for us than how we drive Highway 101. Coastal Commission staff has made clear that Caltrans will also need to address coastal access in the form of a trail along the bay, minimize growth-inducing impacts along Indianola Cutoff, and appropriately mitigate for wetland losses as a part of an approved project.
Caltrans has made some progress on the trail front, courting the Humboldt County Association of Governments, the City of Arcata and others to leverage their resources in support of a separate “Bay Trail,” possibly along the North Coast Rail Authority's right-of-way. But what also needs to be clearly communicated is that this is not a “trail for interchange” deal. First, Caltrans needs to design a project that will actually be an allowable use of wetland fill to meet the requirements of the Coastal Act, and get the green “go” light from the commission.
So if we want the trail deal to work, first we need a passable project.
We also need the kind of solid commitment from Caltrans and other state agencies that the Coastal Commission staff report indicates has been mandated of them: “The Coastal Trail is a vision for all Californians and future generations worldwide that has been endorsed by the legislature and the governor, who have directed state transportation and other agencies to coordinate development ... including, where applicable, making lands available for completion of the trail.” (Emphasis added.)
Caltrans is very good at getting what it wants. We, too, need our local and state elected officials to be tough negotiators with Caltrans and other state agencies that are under this directive. Recent discussions of a partnership between local governments and Caltrans is encouraging, but so far discussion is as far as it's gotten. Caltrans needs to commit its resources to building the trail -- and that includes funding at least to the level they'd have to pay if they were going it alone. Even if Caltrans is denied on Sept. 12, the trail requirement will remain when they come back with a redesigned project. If that happens, we must make sure Caltrans produces a highway project that will meet the standards of the Coastal Act, and contributes a fair share towards the Bay Trail.
Jessica Hall is executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, a Eureka-based group launched in October 2004 to safeguard our coastal resources for the health, enjoyment, and economic strength of the Humboldt Bay community through education, scientific research, and enforcement of laws to fight pollution.