The California Coastal Commission in a 9-1 vote on Thursday afternoon gave Caltrans the go-ahead to build an interchange at the Indianola Cutoff - provided the agency meets certain conditions.
”I don’t know whose idea it was to put us all in a bus with no seat belts and take us across the intersection, but it was very effective,” commissioner Jana Zimmer said during the commission meeting at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka. “This is obviously a public safety issue.” Under conditions laid out by the commission for the Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Improvement Project, Caltrans officials must facilitate a separated bike trail and pedestrian right-of-way, remove all billboards along the corridor, submit a sea-level rise analysis report in their Coastal Development Permits and thoroughly explore wetland mitigation plans.
Caltrans District 1 director Charlie Fielder called it a “workable solution,” and confirmed that Caltrans pledged $1 million for a bay trail on Tuesday.
”We’re very pleased that a good majority of the commissioners approved the project,” Fielder said. “We recognize the community support and desire for a bay trail, and we will be doing what we can to make that a reality.”
The 50 mph safety corridor between Arcata and Eureka on U.S. Highway 101 was established in May 2002 due to public outcry over higher than state average collision rates. Overall collision rates dropped by 45 percent during the first year of implementation, but Coastal Commission district manager Robert Merrill reported that rates at Mid-City Motor World and Indianola Cutoff remained at more than twice the statewide average.
Caltrans’ solution is a $46 million project for a signaled intersection at Airport Road/Jacobs Avenue on northbound 101, a raised interchange at Indianola Cutoff and the closure of median crossings at Mid-City Motor World, California Redwood Sawmill, Bracut and Bayside Cutoff.
Under the proposal, the highway will be raised by 25 feet so cross traffic can pass below. Caltrans project manager Kim Floyd said the interchange will have a “compact” diamond design, meaning sloped on- and off-ramps will be at maximum grade for a smaller overall footprint. The project is estimated to take three years once construction begins.
The project was brought before the state commission to review whether it is consistent with the policies of the California Coastal Management Program under the Coastal Act. Commission staff recommended rejection of the project, because under the act road expansion is not allowed “ ... where there is no feasible less environmentally damaging alternative,” and development must designed to protect views along scenic coastal areas. They suggested a signal light.
Community members, residents and business owners from Eureka, Arcata, Manila, Bayside and Indianola, as well as county and city representatives from a crowd of around 50 spoke during public comments addressing issues such as safety, possible alternatives, increased traffic, environmental impacts and the desire for a bay trail.
One presentation that was met with applause was a video featuring 11 examples of confusion and close calls among drivers - caused by factors ranging from poor judgment to illegal maneuvers - that were recorded at the Indianola intersection from 4:50 p.m. to 5:50 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 9. Gasps from both the crowd and the commissioners could be heard as they watched a bicyclist, cars and a semi-truck dodge traffic.
Commissioner Martha McClure, who moved to conditionally concur following public comment, said she expects to see all the billboards gone and the bay trail tied to the project.
”I think that with the design phase, when Caltrans comes back with the final design, we can see improvements on the interchange then,” she said. “I also disagree with staff that it is capacity-increasing.” Zimmer said she agreed with McClure. “In this case Caltrans does have to come back to us and it is my understanding that we have full discretion to analyze the Coastal Development Permit to our standards,” Zimmer said. Commissioner Steve Kinsey said he was not at all concerned about whether the construction would be growth-inducing, but asked that Caltrans consider State Route 255 and Old Arcata Road while the project is developed.
Northcoast Environmental Center executive director Dan Ehresman, who attended the hearing to oppose the project, called the final outcome a “win-win.” “I’m disappointed there was not more research done on the alternatives,” he said. “But personally I think it’s an outcome that we can live with.”
Humboldt County 3rd district supervisor Mark Lovelace said he felt that the commission did exactly what it was supposed to do. “They took something that was imperfect and found the right mitigation to please the majority of the issues,” he said.
Fielder said the next step would be filing permits with the Eureka, Arcata, Humboldt County and the commission.
”The other agencies - the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers - have already approved,” he said. “We just need to finalize it.”
Catherine Wong can be reached at 441-0514 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Tout @cmwong27.