By JEFF ST. PETER
Del Norte County representatives met with Caltrans officials Friday in Eureka and returned home with a mixed bag of news for regional residents on the Highway 199 construction quandary.
This week, a Caltrans geotechnical engineer inspected the rock slide abatement project east of Crescent City and determined the project should not be put on hold, according to Susan Morrison, director of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission. She attended the meeting in Eureka with commissioners Chuck Blackburn and Clyde Eller.
"The geotechnical engineer said the project can't be safely suspended," Morrison said. "But they will be monitoring the work to see if it has proceeded far enough in the future to safely stop the work." Morrison did say that Caltrans officials were trying to accommodate traffic.
"They committed to no weekend work for the duration of the project," she said, "and they will try to be done by 3 p.m. on Fridays."
"They will also halt construction during Memorial Day Weekend." No blasting or construction work will be done from 3 p.m. Thursday, May 24, until 7 a.m. Tuesday, May 29, to accommodate Memorial Day Weekend traffic.
Escort service through the affected portion of Highway 199 could result in 10 to 20 minute delays during the holiday weekend, Morrison said.
She also said that Caltrans is going to look into the possibility of installing a cable mesh-like netting that can contain small rock material falling from the mountain side.
"But it would only be feasible if the material was small enough to be contained by the fence," she said.
As economic concern increases over effects from traffic delays on Highway 199 because of the Caltrans construction project, a united front appears to be forming to halt the work this summer.
On Wednesday, the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce threw its support into the effort by passing a resolution expressing the need to find a solution to the escalating problem.
On Thursday, the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission met in Crescent City and called upon Caltrans to immediately put a stop to the rock slide abatement project on the Redwood Highway.
The issue has surfaced because of the potential for one-to-two hour traffic delays on 199 while workers gradually blast away potential rock-slide material.
The project is expected to last throughout the summer tourist months.
Highway 199 is the primary traffic artery to Del Norte and Curry counties from Interstate 5.
Until recently, Caltrans was working on the project seven-days-a-week, but in an effort to stem economic impact concerns it had limited blasting and construction from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
But businesses and government officials in the region are afraid the traffic delays will have an increasing impact on tourism and those businesses that benefit from the tourist trade.
Patrick Creek Lodge co-owner Bill Grier told the transportation committee on Thursday the impact of the project on his business has been devastating. The lodge is located just west of the blasting site.
Grier estimates his business has fallen 60 to 70 percent, exemplified by a $70 day on Wednesday.
"It will take us five to 10 years to recover from the damage being done by (the construction)," he said on Friday. "They should have never started it in the first place as there is no major problem. There has been no major (rock slide) activity in recent years, just salt and pepper. There is no eminent danger.
"It's just Caltrans engineering, who think they're gods," Grier said.
"They are just flexing their muscle. They don't care about the people in Brookings or Gold Beach or Crescent City, which they see as nothing more than a ghost town.
"They're defiant, they're arrogant."
Grier said that virtually all the businesses along the Highway 199 corridor east of Crescent City are feeling the economic pinch created by the traffic delays.
"Everyone I am talking to is being hurt," he said. "The traffic count keeps going down, down, down."
And Grier warned that Brookings will soon feel the impact of the Caltrans project too.
"You can quote me as saying that Brookings is going to see a sad turnout for the Azalea Festival," he said. "People aren't going to go around the long way through Roseburg or Eugene.
"And I don't think they will put up with the long delays either."
Peter Spratt, president-elect of the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce, attended the Transportation Committee meeting in Crescent City on Thursday as the chamber's representative.
Spratt was delegated to represent the chamber at Wednesday?s regular board meeting, where the resolution was approved unanimously.
The resolution states: "The Board of Directors of the Brooking-Harbor Chamber of Commerce supports the efforts of those seeking to find solutions to the impact of the Highway 199 construction project.
"Specifically, we urge delaying the project, if safely possible, until Sept. 30, 2001, or in the alternative, the implementation of alternate work schedules so that delays occur during the evening.
"Further, we pledge our support to the expeditious commencement of air service between Crescent City, Calif., and Medford, Ore.
"Finally, we call upon all applicable government units to take the necessary steps to determine and immediately implement the required actions to provide a lasting solution to the problems of Highway 199."
Spratt said the resolution had not been on the Chamber?s agenda for Wednesday, and that it normally takes something extraordinary for the board to address a non-agenda item.
"We felt the 199 issue of a critical value, critical nature," he said Friday. "We waived the general rule of not dealing with new items until the next meeting."
Spratt told the chamber board that he had attended the Del Notre County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, at which time they had declared a state of emergency. He encouraged the chamber board to step up to the plate.
"I told them we needed to be involved," he said. "So we passed the resolution.
"It's difficult to deal with it since it is a California issue. But we wanted to help. We need to get our state and federal legislators to talk with their California counterparts."
From the Del Norte Local Transportation Committee meeting on Thursday, Spratt said it is becoming clear that the recent "swirl of activity" in Curry and Del Norte counties in opposition to the 199 project may be coming together.
"I think it's leading to devising a strategy to coordinate efforts," he said. "Those of us in Curry County need to coordinate our efforts with Del Norte (County) officials.
"It's not in place yet, but we need to get the critical mass going on this. I also think we need to independently keep banging the doors open."
Spratt said several issues were discussed on Thursday, including:
Stop the project until the end of September.
"It would be the easiest solution," Spratt said.
Mitigate a solution in some fashion that would make the delays predictable, provide public services for those having to wait, and provide a method by which accurate and up-to-date information can be disseminated to the public.
Make sure that whatever solution is found contributes to a long-term solution.
Expedite the availability of air service between Crescent City and Medford.
Spratt said he raised the air service issue, realizing it would only be a partial solution.
"It would impact us the most," he said, "not directly those on the 199 corridor."
Spratt said the position of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors was clear: "Fix the problem or leave it alone-it's having a devastating impact."
He added that he came away from the meeting with the impression that Caltrans has other projects lined up for the Redwood Highway that could run through Christmas and beyond.
Spratt said he doesn't expect the economic impact to be as radical to Brookings as it will be to those businesses in the Highway 199 corridor, but local businesses will feel the pinch.
"I think there will be significant negative business impacts to our area if the intermittent closures continue," he said, "but not as great an impact as those on the corridor.
"But don't kid yourself, we'll have a serious impact, a significant economic impact, not just for this year, but forward if this isn't fixed."
Spratt believes the impact on the Brookings area will come more from regional visitors versus those who come from long distances.
"It's not going to stop the tourist from New York who made plans months ago," he said. "It may aggravate them some once they get here, but it won't stop them from coming.
"Where it will hurt us is in the interest of the Rogue Valley traveler, the repeat visitor. That's why air service is so vital for us.
"With low enough round-trip rates between Medford and Crescent City, people would be able to fly over for the weekend."
Caltrans officials were unavailable for comment on Friday.