Back in November, a dear friend and I took our annual trip to Ashland, Ore., to enjoy the fall leaves in Lithia Park. I love most of the drive, first up the coast along U.S. Highway 101 and then following the Smith River Valley on U.S. Route 199.
But that short distance when you're on Interstate 5 in the Medford area is a shocking wake-up call. This tranquil drive suddenly becomes jarringly unpleasant as giant trucks and tractor trailers are right alongside you at 65 mph. I drive a full-size sedan, but no one in an automobile could survive a collision with these monster trucks. Now imagine these same giant trucks, but when you’re on the steepest windy parts of 101 in Southern Humboldt or 199 in the Smith River Canyon. Now imagine it's at night, in a pouring rain.
Why? Why? Why would you put your citizens in such danger? With the completion of Buckhorn Summit on State Route 299, STAA trucks can now access Humboldt County, benefitting those few businesses whose profit margins will increase with access to STAA trucks. We do not need to be putting more large trucks on 199 perched above the Smith River, nor on U.S. Highway 101 between southern Mendocino and northern Humboldt County, where 101 has long stretches with curves that strain the suspension of most vehicles driving at 65 mph, never mind if a deer or a loose tire suddenly crosses your path. In such a situation, the one thing you do not want, is to be alongside of, or head-on with, an oversized truck.
Maybe you think I'm being a bit hysterical and just frighten easily. Well if you doubt me, please take a moment to visit trucksafety.org or read these statements from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: One in 10 highway deaths occurs in a crash involving a large truck. Most deaths in large truck crashes are passenger vehicle occupants. Truck braking capability is often a factor in truck crashes. Loaded tractor-trailers take 20 to 40 percent farther than cars to stop, and the discrepancy is greater on wet and slippery roads. (Rain much on the North Coast?)
Bigger, longer, heavier trucks are deadlier. But then nothing could be more obvious. Yet there are forces that want to subject us to exactly that: bigger, longer, heavier trucks on our windy roads, traveling at high speeds, more and more with drivers who are chronically fatigued. Once you let the STAA truck through, drivers may well have traveled thousands of miles before they end up next to you on a dark and rainy night. Tell me again, why do we want to make our lives so much more dangerous?
Now back to my trip to Ashland. In both directions, we had the now-routine one-way controlled traffic as we passed the chronically failing road at Last Chance Grade south of Crescent City on 101. You may have read recently that a final determination has been made that, in spite of the more than $35 million Caltrans has spent over the last three decades to try to shore up that section of road, physics and geology make it impossible. The road will have to be moved. It is no longer an option, it is now a necessity. The Last Chance Grade Economic Study concluded that a project cost of as much as $1.6 billion was justified based upon the local economic impacts when the current road fails, and fail it will. Oh and don't forget, the post office is still intent on moving our distribution center from Eureka to Medford, so when the road is out, the mail will take even longer to arrive.
Depending on which alternative route around Last Chance Grade is selected (the most likely of which will include tunnels), the preliminary geotechnical recommendations alone will take up to four years, with the final recommendations likely to be 12 years away. Point being: We can not afford to waste time with other unnecessary local highway projects.
So, here we have a billion-dollar project that will take years to complete, but is required if we wish to keep the coast highway, our sole artery to Del Norte County, open. Yet for some reason someone has Caltrans convinced that we should spend millions more of our tax dollars to widen 101 through Richardson Grove State Park and 199 through the Smith River Canyon so that longer, bigger, heavier trucks can be put onto more of our local highways. The number of people who died in large truck crashes was 16 percent higher in 2014 than in 2009. Why? Simple. Because more bigger trucks are on our roads.
But if saving lives doesn't compel you alone, you might also consider the significant increase in wear-and-tear to our own roads. Also, why are we considering widening a highway through a state park? In October, 101 was closed for an entire day when a diesel tanker crashed, spilling 5,000 gallons of petroleum product near Dora Creek — a local swimming hole on the South Fork of the Eel River. Richardson Grove and the Smith River Canyon help protect the North Coast from crashes like these that can have tragic consequences. Let’s not destroy that.
There is a local group that has been rationally addressing these issues with science and common sense. You can find out more and support their efforts at transportationpriorities.org.
Richard Salzman is an agent representing illustrators and visual artists. He lives in Arcata.