Giving the Slip to Devil's Slide

Times Staff Writer

Devil's Slide, a beautiful but troublesome stretch of California Highway 1 south of San Francisco, has bedeviled coastal travelers with landslides, rockslides and mudslides ever since it opened in 1937.

After years of debate over how to keep the road from slipping, the California Department of Transportation next month will begin work on a $270-million project that will bore two 4,000-foot tunnels through San Pedro Mountain behind the slide area.

The idea to reroute Highway 1 through a tunnel took hold nearly a decade ago, after a huge slide closed the road for 158 days.

As commerce nearly came to a standstill and commuters to and from San Francisco were funneled onto a long and slow alternate route, a wily group of activists, who came to be known as the "Tunnelistas," pushed elected officials and an unwilling Caltrans to "Think Tunnel."

"Everyone suffered to some degree, but the business community really suffered because it cut off our lifeblood in terms of our customers," said John Barbour, owner of a restaurant overlooking the San Mateo County coast.

Barbour laid off 50 employees, and revenue at his Moss Beach Distillery dropped by 40%.

Local lore has it that the name Devil's Slide came from 1880s travelers who thought the unstable chute-like bluffs looked like a giant slide -- a ride fit for a devil.

Even before Highway 1 was built, the Ocean Shore Railroad, which ran in the early 1900s, had to contend with Devil's Slide. And four years after the highway opened, slides shut it down for 11 days.

No deaths are known to have occurred as a result of a slide, but Caltrans records show that in the highway's history, slides and slippages have shut the roadway for more than 700 days. Prolonged closures occurred frequently in the early 1980s.

The persistent problems triggered decades of litigation and public wrangling. Various solutions were explored and rejected, including dumping rock debris into the ocean to buttress the hillside and pumping or draining excess water out of the slide plain.

Caltrans had long wanted to build a multilane bypass over the chaparral-dotted hills inland. Although a Sierra Club lawsuit prevented construction of the bypass in the 1970s, Caltrans continued to tout it as the only cost-effective solution.

Environmentalists contended that a 4.5-mile bypass would scar the mountain, bisect McNee Ranch State Park and spawn development.

A turning point came in the wet winter of 1995, when it rained 27 of 29 days. The roadway slumped 6 feet, prompting the 158-day closure.

Commuters here and in other communities south of the slide had to take California Highway 92 a narrow and windy two-lane course, to reach major roads leading to San Francisco and other Bay Area communities. In other words, some commuters had to go south to get north. Forty-minute commutes became two- and three-hour slogs.

The damage at Devil's Slide cost $1.5 million to fix.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors convened a panel of geologists to brainstorm solutions. They recommended a tunnel, setting the "Tunnelistas" in motion.

"I call it an elegant solution," said Lennie Roberts, a legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills. "It's environmentally sound, it's safe, it's a thinking-outside-the-box kind of solution."

But Caltrans -- tagged by environmentalists as bypass- biased -- dismissed a tunnel as expensive and impractical.

"I think we get mischaracterized that we were pushing the bypass upon the people of the coast-side," said Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss. "But we truly felt that the bypass was the only viable option. There was no secret cabal that had chosen the bypass."

In the meantime, tunnel vision took hold.

We were "this ragtag group of people ... who came together and got captivated by this idea of a tunnel," said Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, a Moss Beach mom turned activist. "[We] had a magical combination of people with some unique talents and capabilities, and a beautiful and threatened location, and a giant unresponsive government bureaucracy that wasn't listening."

The Tunnelistas gathered 23,000 signatures to qualify Measure T, to declare a tunnel the preferred alternative, for the county ballot.

The group soon plastered the county with yellow-and-black "Think Tunnel" bumper stickers and yard signs.

When the group was denied entry into the Half Moon Bay Fourth of July parade because of its political nature, its members slapped bumper stickers onto parade entries.

One woman dressed as Captain Tunnel, donning a red leotard, tights and a cape emblazoned with a bright yellow T. In that regalia, Ann Forrister attended public hearings and meetings and gathered signatures door-to-door.

"There was just enormous creativity that went into the entire effort, and Captain Tunnel was just one aspect of that," said Forrister, a 22-year Montara resident.

Voters approved Measure T in 1996 by 3-to-1 ratio.

After retiring Captain Tunnel nearly a decade ago, Forrister will don her cape once again on May 6, when the Tunnelistas and transportation officials celebrate the start of construction.

One tunnel has become two. Construction of the pair of single-lane tunnels -- one for northbound traffic, one for southbound -- is expected to take six years. The bypassed 1.2-mile section of Highway 1 will become a hiking and biking trail.

The tunnel project will be paid for with funds from the Federal Highway Administration's emergency relief program. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and other lawmakers secured the funding by defining the site as an ongoing emergency site.

One environmental hitch popped up when habitat for a threatened species of red-legged frog was discovered below the tunnels' north portals.

As a solution, a twin pair of 1,000-foot-long bridges leading in and out of the tunnels will be built 100 feet above the frog ponds. The bridges added $34 million to the project's cost.

Looking back on the long debate now, former tunnel supporters and foes say they never imagined they would one day work arm in arm.

"They did an about-face and became enthusiastic supporters of the tunnel," Roberts said of Caltrans.

Weiss, the Caltrans spokesman, remembers when attending a public meeting was, for agency officials, like walking into a hornet's nest. "We were adversaries, and now we're friends," he said.

The tunnel campaign gave many residents here their first taste of community activism. They have since taken on more leadership roles, winning seats on city and community councils and serving as board members for environmental groups.

"The tunnel process really changed the lives of a lot of people in this community," Forrister said. "It began with the tunnel for a lot of people but continued."

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