As you'll read in this week's cover story, Last Chance Grade — the failing 3-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 101 just south of Crescent City — sits on what's called a broken formation. You have fragmented shale, siltstone and thick bedded sandstone that are being thrust upward as two tectonic plates collide hundreds of miles below. Meanwhile, gravity is pulling the top layers of rock and soil toward the ocean in three large landslides, all of which are moving independently of one another at different speeds and in different directions.
In some ways, the jumbled mess of rock and dirt resembles North Coast politics, which often see divergent groups, motivated by different forces, move in different directions, often to the detriment of all around them. We, too, can be considered a broken formation and that's a problem. And it might prove a fatal one in the fight ahead to find a permanent solution to that failing strip of road — which stands as a vital artery for both Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
As Kimberly Wear explains in the cover story, most agree that rerouting U.S. Highway 101 inland, bypassing Last Chance Grade, is the most sensible solution. However, it's one that will take upwards of $1 billion in federal funds — that's 10 times the current congressional budget allocation for emergency road repairs throughout the nation.
And each of the six alternate routes currently under consideration carry aspects that are sure to hit a nerve with local interest groups. The shortest route, estimated to also be the cheapest to build, would plow through virgin redwood forests. Routes that attempt to avoid impacts to pristine forests would be more expensive and take longer to build. In short, under typical circumstances, all options seem to have landmines that would either send the conservative chamber-of-commerce types or the environmental protectors among us running from the bargaining table.
But the stakes are too high for that. As Caltrans estimates, a catastrophic closure of Last Chance Grade will cost Del Norte County alone more than $300 million a year in economic activity, to say nothing of the economic impacts to Humboldt County, which is home to businesses and a tourism industry dependent on the flow of traffic north. And those dollars and cents calculations ignore that a prolonged closure would have very real human impacts, as it would sever the town of Klamath from its county seat, along with its courthouse, social services and schools.
Especially in today's political climate, it may seem a stretch to imagine that Congress is going to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to repair a road in the rural Northwest. That may be true, but it's certainly even more improbable to think it would do so for a project shrouded in controversy under threat of protest and litigation.
The bottom line is if we on the North Coast are going to make a compelling case for federal funds, we need to present a united front. We're all going to need to give a little, to compromise and meet each other halfway. On one side, that likely means accepting more environmental damage than we're comfortable with. On the other, it means agreeing to a heftier price tag and a slower construction schedule than we'd like.
To get around this broken formation that's undercutting Humboldt County's main artery to the North, we're going to have to get around the broken formation of our politics. And the scary part is, we may not get another chance.
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.