More than 70 people turned out for a community forum on the Caltrans proposal to realign and widen a stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove. The forum was held on Wednesday evening at the Garberville Veterans building. A week earlier, 200 or so people attended a similar forum held at the Bayside Grange in Arcata.
Weott resident Barbara Kennedy, who has been an active opponent to the widening project, introduced the panel of speakers. These included Kerul Dyer of EPIC, Dr. Ken Miller of McKinleyville and Fire Commissioner Jeff Hedin from the Piercy Volunteer Fire Department.
Dr. Lauren Oliver moderated the question and answer period.
Dyer spoke first, calling the project a “really important issue” and said that EPIC would use “every single tool we have” to stop the widening. She said that although Caltrans prefers to call what they plan a “realignment” of the road, the result will be a wider highway through a short section of the grove. EPIC favors a “no build” alternative, Dyer said, and has been handing out postcards in favor of that option to people who are concerned about the fate of the grove. So far, she said, they have handed out over 2,000 postcards.
Dyer said that in the draft EIR for the project, Caltrans wanted the wider highway so that two STAA federal standard trucks, which are longer than California’s legal limit, to be able to pass each other going in opposite directions without crashing into each other.
Greater safety is one of the reasons given for the widening, but Dyer said that she had reviewed CHP accident reports and found that for a five-year period, there had been six accidents in the project area and only one of those involved a truck. No accidents in the project area involving trucks have occurred since June 2005, she said.
A handout at the meeting suggested that the trucks themselves are dangerous. Trucks represent less than 3 percent of vehicles, but are involved in 13-14 percent of fatal crashes and 98 percent of fatalities in car vs. truck accidents are automobile passengers.
Dr. Miller addressed the economic rationale behind the project, which is supposed to be a boon for North Coast businesses. Miller said that while some businesses will benefit from the larger trucks, other businesses will be hurt by them.
Miller suggested that there is a larger plan at work in the realignment proposal and that plan is to “breach the buffer between the I-5 highway and the coast. He said the work being done to create an overpass at Alton is part of this plan to open up the coastal region to more STAA trucks. He said this will inevitably mean an increase in very large truck traffic in this area, with a goal of more urban development on the Northcoast. He said the move isn’t being made for Humboldt County businesses but for outside development interests. The plan is for development all along US 101, Miller said, starting with the Willits bypass, which is expected to be completed soon.
Miller said he favored a different approach to moving goods on the coastal areas. Short-sea shipping development would create a maritime highway from Seattle to San Diego.
”Times have changed since the project was conceived,” he said, making sea transport more economical than land transport. He called short sea shipping the most efficient kind of transport and said there’s nothing we import that couldn’t be put on a barge and brought here by sea. Another advantage of switching to short sea shipping would be reduced traffic congestion on local highways.
He noted that 40 percent of our greenhouse gases are generated by the transportation of goods and that short sea shipping would be better for the environment and better for the local economy. He said that Caltrans had failed to consider the economic value of a localized economy.
Jeff Hedin said that the economy of Piercy once provided 200 jobs. That number is down to eight, he said, and two of those are threatened by the project. The Piercy Volunteer Fire Department responds to accidents as far away as Laytonville. Of 213 calls, he said, 114 were vehicle accidents, only seven of which were in the boundaries of the project area. Hedin said he thought the realignment would create blind spots and encourage “risk taking.”
Hedin called for “stopping all highway expansion now!” and got a round of applause. He also called for “firing every politician who can’t make it happen.”
Other issues raised by those in the audience included the use of Headwaters Fund money to pay for the Richardson Grove study.
Miller said that the Headwaters Fund paid for a “one-sided campaign” to sell the project and that they had the backing of the Board of Supervisors and Kirk Girard in his role as head of Economic Development. The big trucking industry is being subsidized with Headwaters money, he said, whereas the opposition to the project is paying their own way.
Miller said also that State Parks had written a “strong comment letter” raising a number of issues concerning the trees and wildlife. The EIR acknowledges that marbled murrelets inhabit the park but they don’t intend to survey for murrelets until after the project is completed.
Businessman Dan Baleme, who owns a business in the Richardson Grove area, said that he and his fellow business owners in the area are very much opposed to the project. He said that when Caltrans, without notice to the businesses, spent a day taking core samples in the area, his business dropped 90 percent.
Baleme also complained about the lack of responsiveness to local businesses.
”They’re not talking to local businesses and not telling them what they’re going to do.” He likened Caltrans to a steamroller.
”I never had a Caltrans representative talk to me before something that will affect my business,” Baleme said. “Just getting somebody on the phone is impossible.”
He said that the project will have a significant negative impact on the grove businesses and “we’re opposed to it.”
Supervisor Clif Clendenen was at the forum. He took notes but didn’t speak. However, when someone in the crowd demanded to know “where is our supervisor?” Clendenen stood up and received polite applause.
In response to a question regarding possible legal action, Dyer said that no action can be taken until the final environmental document is released. There were people in the audience who stated their willingness to engage in civil disobedience to stop the project from going forward.