Tight Squeeze

Struggling truckers debate the financial pros and cons to Caltrans' Richardson Grove project

| June 02, 2011
A truck barely stays inside the line while rounding the curve between mile post markers 1.35 and 1.40. The area on the right is where Caltrans proposes a “sliver fill.” - PHOTO BY DAVID BERGIN
  • Photo by David Bergin
  • A truck barely stays inside the line while rounding the curve between mile post markers 1.35 and 1.40. The area on the right is where Caltrans proposes a “sliver fill.”

McKinleyville trucker Randy Jones is opposed to widening Hwy. 101 through Richardson Grove, but it's not the trees he's worried about; it's his business. His trucks are the right length to navigate the stretch as is; realigning the road would allow big company rivals into Humboldt County.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) project remains on hold after an environmental coalition asked a federal judge in San Francisco for an injunction last week, pending the outcome of a lawsuit the group filed last year.

The stated goal of the project is to make Humboldt County accessible from the south to industry-standard trucks, which are currently prohibited on the curvy stretch through the grove because of length restrictions -- 65 feet for single trailers, 75 feet for doubles. Caltrans plans to realign several stretches, moving the highway in some places and widening it by as much as a lane's-worth elsewhere. Caltrans would have to remove more than 40 non-redwoods -- mostly tanoaks, maples and bay laurels -- and cut and pave over the roots of some of the ancient redwoods that stand next to the roadway.

Most of the controversy surrounding the project has focused on the environmental impacts, with opponents predicting adverse effects on old growth redwoods and the larger ecosystem while Caltrans and other project proponents cry nonsense, saying the project would scarcely touch the trees (see "Roads and Redwoods," April 8, 2010).

Meanwhile, a separate debate rages among the men and women who actually drive trucks through the grove. Some welcome the restrictions as a buffer against the outside world while others see it as a harmful barrier. Jones, owner of Randy Jones Trucking, falls into the former category.

"As soon as they open that up you'll get the bigger trucks in here," he said. The current industry standard is a 53-foot trailer with a sleeper cab, which together exceed the length limit. However, these longer trucks offer a better value for large-volume customers than those in Jones' fleet -- more space means fewer trucks needed to ship the same amount of goods. So Jones' competitive advantage exists only while those bigger trucks are forbidden from passing through Richardson Grove.

"We've adapted to this area. All this equipment we've bought, it's not gonna be worth anything," he said. "We're barely surviving now, with rates the way they are and gas prices." If the project goes through, Jones said the eight or 10 people he employs might be left looking for work.

Shirley Brown, owner of Shirley Brown Trucking, echoed Jones' sentiments. "The more trucks, the more competition," she said. Brown used to manage a fleet of trucks, but the recent economic downturn forced her to downsize. She sold off the trucks and her office, and now works out of her home, brokering transportation deals.

"The bottom line," said Brown, "is that the bigger companies, with maybe 200 trucks, and the little local companies, with maybe a few guys and a couple trucks ... can't compete." Besides offering bigger trailers, Brown said, larger companies can also afford to work for less, which drives rates down. "It's a pretty low margin already," she said.

Brown finds the big rigs intimidating for another reason. "I don't wanna be on the road and run into those big-ass trucks," she said, laughing. "They scare me, and I'm in the business."

Other local truckers stand to gain from the realignment. Mike Mitchell of Redwood Coast Trucking navigates log trucks -- called log bunks -- through the grove. He wouldn't mind having a little more wiggle room. "We're for it," Mitchell said. "Oh yeah. You betcha." Since his company drives mainly log bunks, it isn't likely to encounter direct competition from outside truckers.

Gary Alto of Alto Brothers Trucking is more ambivalent. "Safety-wise I think it needs to be done," he said. "Is one tree worth one life? I don't think so."

As for the business side, Alto's not too concerned either way. Alto Brothers already uses one 53-foot trailer, which can be hitched to a short tractor and still come in under the 65-foot limit. For his purposes it's not length restrictions but the 80,000-pound weight limit in California that confines his shipments -- even his shorter trailers reach that threshold. "It's not gonna help us hauling wood products," Alto said. Those who do stand to benefit, he said, are big box retailers, because a longer truck makes a big difference when you're hauling lightweight items like potato chips and toilet paper.

Dwayne Reichlin, board member and former president of the Hambro Group, said the Richardson Grove project has a direct correlation with the cost of living on the North Coast. The Hambo Group, which includes Humboldt Flakeboard Panels, Inc., and trucking outfit Snoozie Shavings, Inc., has struggled to compete with companies along the I-5 corridor because of the increased cost of shipping to and from Humboldt County.

"We're trying to get all the major arteries in Del Norte and Humboldt opened up to [standard-length trucks] so that we can be competitive," Reichlin said. He's not sympathetic to those benefiting from the current restrictions. "They call themselves specialty haulers," he said. "They think they've got a captive market. That's just B.S. in my opinion."

Reichlin believes that without the road widening, declines in the larger economy will come back to bite such "specialty haulers" in the long run. "There's going to be fewer products going out, and those guys are going to have to drive out of Humboldt to get products to haul in," he said. At that point, he said, they'll want to be able to compete with the big companies.

Ultimately, Reichlen believes that opening up Richardson Grove would save Humboldt County businesses millions annually and lower the cost of living here for the average person. "We're looking at saving money in this country," he said. "Let's do something that makes common sense."  



Comments (7)

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Choice closing words from the author, however it would not lower the cost of living for the average person. This is proven by everywhere else average people live, where these projects have already taken place. Small property owners especially stand to benefit...astronomically...as time passes, so long as highway 101 remains a welcoming mellow point when driving north through Richardson Grove, or an excellent farewell if you're heading south. Let's keep an appreciable distance from the fast lane, literally.

Posted by forests are important, freeways are not on 06/02/2011 at 1:46 PM

How will spending $10 to $20 Million of tax payer money save money. Save money for who? Trickle down never happens. We need to get trucks off the roads and utilize Short Sea Shipping on barges and other alternatives, not make trucks larger to close down our local trucking firms that serve us, cause more damage to our already fragile Highway 101 up here, and just be sensible about how we handle this issue. How about just slowing down and keeping the normal trucking firms in business like Randy Jones and Shirley Brown were saying, and how about keeping money local. Maybe the rumor I heard that Wal-Mart and Best Buy are coming to the Bayshore Mall is true, and Home Depot is supposedly coming to Marina Center. This will finish off the process closing the rest of the smaller stores and trucking firms that supply us and ship just fine with CA Legal trucks that fit our roads. Cutting the roots of many old growth trees that are over 1,000 years old, and logging many other redwoods and other trees in that canopy at Richardson Grove is no small thing. There would not be two lawsuits if this was a small thing. Who will fix the county roads with more added truck damage? So to say this proposed project will save money is disingenuous, to say the least. This proposed Caltrans project through Richardson Grove will cost the tax payers to build it (we know $10 Million turns into $20 Million in a heartbeat. When driving south, look at the right hand side of the road and how battered it is already. Look at Bigfoot where there is NOTHING UNDER THE highway there, as you can see from a pothole and another 4 inch drop that just got covered again with more heavy asphalt by Caltrans right after they cleared the landslide covering Highway 101 just north of Redway. Now it has dropped another inch at Bigfoot. It will cave in, just like Highway 1, as the river runs under the highway there. Many more landslides are to come, so Caltrans needs to stay busy keep Highway 101 open, as they have their work cut out doing just that. People who have studied this project in detail, do not believe these lies about saving money. It will not save money. It will cost millions and it will cost many their jobs in the long run.

Posted by Mystified on 06/02/2011 at 2:15 PM

First off, if anyone has read the actual EIR, they would realize that no redwoods will be logged from the grove. Second, the reason Humboldt County has to pay out of their @#$ for goods is due to restrictions already in place. Third, a little competition will help reduce the cost of goods (namely food products) and there is no indication that WalMart and the like wish to hunker down here in Humboldt again (remember the election we held in which we voted down WalMart??). Fourth, some obviously will benefit and some will not due to the completion of this project BUT has anyone, including CalTrans completed an actual cost-benefit analysis and made it available to the public? Perhaps this should be done? Fifth, from personal experience I agree with the public safety aspect of this project since that stretch of roadway is scary to go through. Too often I have found myself or someone I know getting into a collision due to reckless or distracted driving by motorists. Lastly, yes it is the "gateway" to the redwoods and Humboldt County - it is the Redwood Curtain that divides the rural north to the suburban south but in all honesty, is this project really going to detrimentally alter this namesake and place us in peril for becoming the new Santa Rosa or Ukiah? I doubt it. Every new academic year, more and more students continue to filter on up through to Humboldt County and many decide to stay which by all means is their right. I'd be more concerned with the continued growth of HSU rather than a simple little roadway expansion.

Posted by Tired of hearing everyone complaining on 06/02/2011 at 2:42 PM

"A simple little roadway expansion" costing $10-20 million??? The state's courting bankruptcy and that money should be spent reducing the record deaths and injuries taking place on Hwy 101 in Eureka. The more we improve Eureka's quality of life, the higher paying industries we can attract. Location, location, location....

Posted by Anonymous on 06/02/2011 at 11:06 PM

The only people who stand to benefit from this phony "improvement" project are dense residential and nationalized commercial interests, aka stripmalls and project housing, as seen everywhere else in the US. It's absurd to think the average local joe will experience a financial benefit. The average joe becomes more and more expendable instead. Everybody's person and property becomes worth a little less all the time because of stuff like this.. Again, the proof is everywhere else in the nation. Keep Humboldt as unique as possible in these ways, everybody who really lives here and loves living here for what it is right now will really benefit in the long run.

Posted by it ain't broken, don't fix it. on 06/03/2011 at 9:19 AM

this over the road trucker hauls mostly charmin and kotex-don't like trucks?? i can go home and park it if you want...

Posted by uncle dan on 06/03/2011 at 6:56 PM

Lets bring back the railroad and use it to import goods.

Posted by ED Denson on 06/04/2011 at 11:12 AM
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