State commission report snubs Hwy. 101 interchange

A rendering of the proposed interchange.

A rendering of the proposed interchange.

The California Department of Transportation’s Arcata-Eureka Highway 101 improvement project has been deemed at odds with state law due to its most expensive aspect.

A staff report for the July 10 state Coastal Commission meeting describes the 101 project’s $23 million interchange at the Indianola Cutoff as being inconsistent with the California Coastal Act. The commission staff’s recommendation is to deny certification of Coastal Act consistency, which Caltrans needs to do the project.

The commission hearing won’t be held on July 10, however, as Caltrans has heeded calls for holding it in Humboldt County. It’s been postponed until September, when the commission meets in Eureka, said Caltrans Public Information Officer Scott Burger.

He added that “the agenda change will better accommodate local public participation” and the commission staff report is “under review.”

Burger said Caltrans has no further comment. The agency has launched what Burger described as a “news and information blog” about the project at eurekaarcatacorridor.wordpress.com.

The commission staff report focuses on the interchange and states that it fails to comply with the Coastal Act. The interchange will displace wetlands and according to the staff report, its purpose doesn’t justify it because the goal is to expand traffic capacity instead of better accommodating existing traffic levels.

The staff report acknowledges that the project’s intent is to improve safety but it states that a less environmentally-damaging alternative is available – installing a traffic signal at Indianola. Growth inducement, sea level rise, visual impact and bicycle and pedestrian safety are also highlighted as concerns.

The findings were announced in a June 28 press release from Humboldt Baykeeper and the North Coast Environmental Center. It points out that the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG) approved using regional state funding for the 101 project but the cities of Arcata, Fortuna and Rio Dell dissented.

In 2011, the HCAOG majority approved half of the funding Caltrans needs to build the interchange. The plan is to build half of it and then apply for the funding needed to finish it. At the time, the Coastal Commission’s staff had indicated that the interchange wouldn’t jibe with the Coastal Act.

In the press release, Jen Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper’s policy director, said filling in wetlands is only allowable for “very specific purposes – and an interchange isn’t one of them.” She adds that “this is something Caltrans has been informed of before and yet they continue to pursue the interchange.” In an interview, Kalt was asked her thoughts about why the agency is persisting. Noting that Caltrans has “proceeded with lots of very controversial projects in recent years,” Kalt said the agency seems unconcerned about public comment on project costs, coastal access and bicycle/pedestrian access.

“They’re a road-building agency, obviously – we’ve seen a little bit of change but it’s very slow to change,” she added.

A Coastal Commission denial will force a reappraisal of the project and Kalt said that outcome is no surprise. “I think that privately, many of the public officials who voted to support funding this project have believed from the beginning that the Coastal Commission would deny the interchange,” she continued.

“The unfortunate reality is that all over California, local officials pass the buck to the Coastal Commission to protect the coast,” said Kalt.

Northcoast Environmental Center Executive Director Dan Ehresman is also quoted in the press release and he said that the interchange would be accompanied by median closures, leading to increased traffic speeds. That would make the Humboldt Bay stretch of 101 – which is designated by Caltrans as part of the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route — less safe for bicyclists, he continued.

Also in the release, Jessica Hall, Humboldt Baykeeper’s executive director, describes Caltrans’ other project alternatives as “undeveloped” and says the agency needs to “explore more realistic solutions.”