NorCal Highway Projects Raise Environmental Concerns

Mar 12, 2014

The Smith River, near Crescent City, California
Credit Clinton Steeds via Wikipedia Commons

Recently, an independent review of California’s transportation department Caltrans concluded the agency is stuck in the past. Some activists say several Caltrans projects along the North Coast are examples of the need for reform.

US Highway 199 is also known as the Redwood Highway. The two-lane road takes off southwest from Interstate 5 at Grants Pass, runs through the Illinois Valley then snakes across the Coast Range to Crescent City.

It’s a winding, narrow road that follows the Smith River as it descends into California. Highway 197 navigates similar terrain between 199 and coastal highway 101. Crescent City resident Don Gillespie says trucks especially can have a hard time negotiating those sharp curves.

Don Gillespie: “We just had a truck wreck last week, a lumber truck. He somehow flipped his truck over and spilled, it was just lumber, into the river. He was carrying 200 gallons of diesel fuel in his fuel tanks, but luckily those did not puncture.”

Gillespie is with the environment group Friends of Del Norte. Caltrans plans to break ground soon on a project that would widen a number of pinch points along the two highways. The goal is to allow the roads to accommodate longer tractor-trailer trucks carrying bigger loads. Del Norte County officials have been pushing for the project for years, saying it will increase commerce in this rural northwest corner of the state.

But Don Gillespie and the Friends of Del Norte think it’s a bad idea.

Don Gillespie: “Our community tries to attract tourists to come here, and I feel that we’re just complicating that process by inviting these larger trucks and the potential for inexperienced drivers finding themselves in problems.”

Natalynne DeLapp is with the Environmental Protection Information Center, or EPIC in Arcata. She says widening those pinch points to allow trucks that could be more than 70 feet long is too risky.

Natalynne DeLapp: “Anybody who has driven that road knows that it is a very tight, narrow, windy road as it is. And increasing vehicular traffic of these giant trucks is going to potentially cause safety problems. It could cause accidents, head-on accidents. Trucks could fall and spill into the river.”

DeLapp says that would damage efforts to restore salmon fisheries along the North Coast. DeLapp’s group has filed legal action to require a more thorough environmental review that would consider alternatives to increasing large truck traffic.

Kevin Church is the Caltrans project manager for the 199 project. He says concerns that opening the road to longer trucks could lead to something like a tanker spill are unfounded. He notes that tanker trucks are already allowed on 199.

Kevin Church: “Much of the trucking you see, like the lumber industry and tanker trucks are weight limited. So you won’t have heaver vehicles on the road.”

Another objection to the project is that opening 199 to the same trucks that travel I-5 could encourage truckers to avoid snowy mountain passes by taking the Redwood Highway to the frost-free coastal roads. Kevin Church says Caltrans believes the added distance makes that an unlikely choice.

Kevin Church: “While there may occasionally be some increase in traffic, we don’t really expect it to be significant or even seriously measurable.”

Overall, Church says, Caltrans has done its best to design a project that increases safety while protecting the environment.

But opponents see this project, as well as others along the North Coast that have destroyed wetlands and endangered ancient redwoods, as signs that Caltrans remains committed to an outdated vision, a fossil-fueled future of ever wider, flatter, straighter highways.