Light at end of Devil’s Slide tunnel project approaching

Excavation — the actual boring of holes into Montara Mountain to create the much-anticipated Devil’s Slide tunnel — startsMonday, a major step for a project that has seen skyrocketing costs, startup delays and environmental criticism.

Devil’s Slide, a winding stretch of Highway 1 carved into the mountain, has been the site of landslide after landslide that, to varying degrees, have been known to cause road closures that cripple commutes and coastal businesses.

Though officials in 1958 first proposed the idea of a tunnel to address the landslide issue, it was put on hold because of strong opposition from some environmental activists.

The solution, discussed in detail since 1996 when voters overwhelmingly approved the Local Coastal Plan, was a twin-bore, three-quarter-mile tunnel running through the mountain between Montara and Pacifica, allowing drivers to bypass the precarious bit of highway.

Preliminary work began in 2005, but next week workers will finally begin drilling into the mountain. That work will continue all the way through the project’s completion, according to Caltrans spokesman John Cunliffe.

The project, first estimated at $240 million and now estimated to cost $272 million in federal emergency funds secured by Congressman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, is expected to open to traffic in December 2010, Cunliffe said.

Though the project’s cost has drawn criticism, Cunliffe said boring a hole through a mountain is work that not many companies are trained to do. Caltrans received only two bids for the project.

“It’s not like paving over a roadway,” Cunliffe said. “This is a very expensive, extensive project.”

In addition to the tunnel excavation, the project included restoring a nearly half-acre section of wetland that, per state regulations, had to be replaced near the original site. The wetlands have been restored north of Montara.

Pacifica Councilwoman Sue Digre said that although the project seems to begoing well, she remains concerned that a brand-new tunnel may invite people to speed down that stretch of Highway 1. For now, she says, the benefits far outweigh the cost.

“We’re an erosion city — us, Daly City, everyone along the coast,” Digre said. “With tsunamis and earthquakes, we need to do all we can to make sure we’re safe but can still enjoy the beautiful scenery on that spot.”

tramroop@examiner.com

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