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Hwy 199/197 Project: Troubling conflicts with Friends of Del Norte?

By Samuel Strait – February 24, 2016 –
While it no longer appears to be the task of the local newspaper, The Triplicate, to question anything that is published by the “Environmental Lobby” within its pages, or “Heaven Forbid” have one of its vaunted reporters ask questions about  the many troubling conflicts of information supplied by Friends of Del Norte or the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) about the STAA Hiway 199/197 project.  Now perhaps it is time to ask those questions..

There are many parts to this effort by the local transportation commission and Caltrans in addressing issues of Highway safety on certain areas of both Highways 199 and 197 which have exceptionally high and fatal accident rates.  As with anything to do with responsible efforts to improve our highway situation in the Smith River Canyon, agencies cannot avoid having to deal with Friends of Del Norte, its environmental concerns, and additionally the chronic lack of State Highway funding for poor rural counties who don’t have much pull in Sacramento.  It was perhaps a most pleasant surprise when by making a few changes to the plan which would make 199/197 a STAA route that the federal government agreed to foot the bill. While the State has spent money in the past to make improvements to both 199 and 197, this project was much more expensive for the scope of the project for state highway funds despite the dire need for these improvements.

Caltrans’ initial approach to planning the improvements was with a minimalist approach to impacts on the environment, which immediately fell afoul of Friends of Del Norte (FODN).  For them there is no minimalist approach to anything regarding the Smith River.  FODN’s immediate reaction was to scream unacceptable levels of environmental degradation, inadequate environmental impact reporting and huge safety concerns regarding making it a STAA route.  This activism took on the normal form of packed meetings, complaints and nuisances lawsuits, injunctions and general attempts to stall the project long enough to lose the proposed funding.  It was and continues to be a situation where FODN is incapable of recognizing the chief component of the planned improvements is to make seven segments of Highways 199 and 197 less susceptible to having a fatal collision rate of 5.4 times greater than the state wide average.

FODN’s response is rather typical in that a flurry of letters began appearing in the Triplicate with arguments ranging from herds of big, monstrous, extra long trucks that are guaranteed to be all over the road flooding Highways 199/197 are a huge safety issue. Followed by Truck drivers will use Hiway 199/197 to avoid putting on chains in winter to use I-5.  Del Norte County’s economy has no use for STAA trucking.  (I suspect they know that because they have been largely responsible for eliminating most of that economy.)  The driveways on 197 will not be safe to use with STAA trucks on the roadway.  Bigger trucks and correspondingly larger loads will be more prone to larger accidents.  The environment will be greatly impacted.   Water, noise, air quality will decline.  Tourism will flee from the prospect of the dangers of monster trucks on the Highway.  And on and on….

Of course all of these reasons given by FODN do not merit so much as a single question by our vaunted Triplicate.  Yet, each reason should be questioned as most can be easily mitigated or are objections without any foundation.  There can’t be a herd of STAA trucks waiting to use 199/197 if there is no economy to support such increase in truck traffic.  (Can’t have it both ways.)  I guess reduced speed zones around the driveways on 197 is something unheard of?  Then does Truck traffic truly represent the problem it is being represented?  Traffic incident reports on 199/197 indicate that by a 19 to 1 margin driving in a commercial truck is far less dangerous than passenger vehicles of all types.  Finally, if larger STAA trucks even in the meager amounts projected can lead to an overall reduction in the total amount of truck traffic on 199/197 how can that not be another good thing for the environment.  Let’s face it, current levels of truck traffic on 199/197 for most drivers is not an overwhelmingly complex issue to deal with and will continue to be so with the common sense work being applied to 199/197.  It should make the road over all safer for everyone and the few “monster trucks” that are encountered will no doubt only be noticed by FODN or those that don’t drive particularly well.

But highway safety is just so much window dressing in FODN and EPIC’s objections to the road improvement, because environmental concerns are really their only motivation to seek the halt of the project.  Notice that when an environmental issue crops up, there is no end to the lengths that FODN will sink to in order to torpedo many worth while projects.  A key indicator is how much money are they willing to spend and how far into the legal system are they willing to go.  Apparently endangered species live up to filling two suits in court, but no where has highway safety been given the same treatment.  It is only because environmental concerns seem to have been more or less addressed, that FODN have had to resort to safety concerns and the latest bit of nonsense geologic catastrophe.

Granted that a stronger effort could be made to insure a safer 199/197, particularly with respect to road width.  There is; however, no way that FODN would continence such expansion of the project, nor would the money for such an expansion be available any time soon.  Any road improvements in this county will come in small bits and pieces, quite often well past the real need.  The bottom line is whether or not we should continue to sustain fatality rates at 5.4 times the state average on that stretch of road when something more immediate is available to correct the problem.  Or should we continue to be mired in protectionism of every single aspect of the environment in the Smith River Canyon.  Should we become paralyzed with fear of what might happen should a few STAA trucks use highway199/197 in order to improve Del Norte County’s future to reliable roads in and out of the County.

Once the hysteria from groups such as FODN and EPIC out of Arcata subside it is important to note that many of the previous road improvement projects in the Smith River Canyon are barely noticeable and certainly not to someone from out of the area.  I shudder to think what access to Del Norte County would be like should the 199 have not made any progress from the first time I traveled the road in 1952.

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