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Celebration marks opening of Devil's Slide tunnels

March 25, 2013 11:35:35 PM PDT
Life is about to get easier for drivers and residents who have had to endure rock slides that closed Highway 1 through San Mateo County. Caltrans is poised to open a pair of tunnels that will keep traffic moving when rocks fall on a dangerous stretch of the road.

Both tunnels through the Devil's Slide area are all lit up but not quite ready to handle drivers. For much of Monday evening, traffic was backed up in both directions as cars had to take turns because Highway 1 was reduced to a single lane

Workers are spending the last few hours laying down stripes, shifting concrete barriers and making sure the angle of the road is correct.

"Open tonight, I'd say roughly between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., thereabouts," Caltrans spokesperson Bob Haus said. "It'll definitely be open for the morning rush hour."

Festivities early Monday evening marked the opening of the long-awaited tunnels. The occasion meant the end of 74 years of crumbling cliffs, horrific accidents and highway closures that sometimes lasted for months.

"Beyond ecstatic and thrilled today. Such a victory for the people," said Zoe Kersteen-Tucker of the Citizen's Alliance for the Tunnel Solution.

The tunnel was realized after decades of heated debate, lawsuits and funding challenges. Caltrans wanted to build a bypass road, but opposition emerged that it would cause environmental damage. It took a ballot measure in 1996 that forced the state to build a tunnel instead.

"This was a freeway that was going to be 300 feet in the air in some places and cuts in the mountain of 300 feet. So this was a really good compromise to make a safe, reliable road that would connect the coast up and down Santa Cruz to San Francisco," said Kathryn Slater-Carter, a tunnel supporter.

The people will now have a protective tunnel to drive through, instead of unprotected Highway 1. The stretch of road known as Devil's Slide would often be closed because of landslides.

"It'll be a relief to actually know that that road is open and you don't have to worry about it. You don't have to worry that your businesses will suffer. You don't have to worry that you can't get your kids to school. It'll be fantastic," said Kersteen-Tucker.

Caltrans said that digging the twin bores was one of the biggest challenges the agency has faced. There were environmental issues they had to work around and it had been a while since it took on a tunneling project of this magnitude.

"A large tunnel that we built was the Caldecott Tunnel back in '64. These are also longer tunnels. These are about 4,400 feet long. Longer than the Caldecott Tunnel," said Caltrans Director Bijan Sartipi.

Coastal residents played a key role in getting the tunnels built. Some people doubted this day would ever arrive but they knew, in their hearts, that they had to keep fighting.

"The scenic resources here are unparalleled throughout the world. They're just irreplaceable and we knew that we couldn't sacrifice this mountain and these vistas for a huge inland freeway bypass when we didn't have to. A tunnel is a?better, more elegant solution to this ongoing problem at Highway 1," said Kersteen-Tucker.

Going southbound, drivers will now cross a bridge that feeds into twin tunnels. The tunnels will provide a safer route, linking Pacifica to the north with Half Moon Bay to the south.

The tunnels also have wiring to allow AM and FM radio reception and public safety communications. They will be known as the Tom Lantos tunnels, named for the late peninsula congressman who secured the initial federal funding.

"We do not get too many chances in one's lifetime to work on infrastructure such as this. These are history-making projects," said Sartipi.


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