The 40-year campaign by Committee for Green Foothills and other environmental groups to protect Montara Mountain and McNee Ranch State Park from Caltrans destructive 7-mile freeway bypass plan came to a successful conclusion when the Tom Lantos Tunnel officially opened in March 2013. This environmentally-sound tunnel solution to the vexing unstable stretch of highway at Devil’s Slide preserved the coastal environment and repurposed the existing roadway along the slide into a spectacular hiking and biking trail.
Devil’s Slide, the Highway 1 segment between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay was finished in 1937, easing travel for many commuters and day trippers. However, landslides and tumbling rocks caused periodic closures and gave this stretch of road it’s namesake. Caltrans, California’s transit agency, began considering solutions to this problem in the 1960s
Big plans for the region
During the post-war prosperity of 1950s and 1960s, ambitious plans were laid to develop the San Francisco Peninsula in similar style as sprawling Los Angeles. This was the time of suburbanization, with the automobile coming into its heyday and Caltrans making big investments in highways and bridges.
Compare the size of the greater metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles on maps of similar scale, and you get a sense for what the region could have become.
At this time the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors adopted a Master Plan that anticipated 100,000 people living in the Half Moon Bay area by 1990. Their plan was to pave over vast tracts of coastal land for sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, much like the one-to-two level style you see in Daly City today. Caltrans followed suit with its solution to Devil’s Slide: a multi-lane 7-mile highway bypass over Montara Mountain and all the way down to Half Moon Bay. Had this highway come to fruition, much of this anticipated Los Angeles-style sprawling growth would have come to fruition on Montara Mountain.
NEPA and CEQA come into play
Proposed 7-mile bypass and the tunnel alternativeThe National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. NEPA “requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.” The central component of such consideration is an Environmental Impact Statement, which outlines the environmental impact of a proposed action. Later in the same year that NEPA became law, California’s state legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which extends the basic principles of NEPA to the state and local level, requiring state and local agencies to “avoid or mitigate” environmental impacts, “if feasible.”
An unfortunate misconception about NEPA and CEQA is that they actually have the power to halt a project on environmental grounds. The main function of these laws is disclosure, and agencies often get “creative” about their methods of mitigating their impact. In some cases agencies have continued with projects in spite of environmental precedents to alter or abandon them, claiming that the good they will do for society justifies the environmental impact.
Yet Caltrans was no exception to the requirement to study and disclose environmental impacts. However, they failed altogether to procure an EIS for their 7-mile highway plan. A plucky bunch of environmental groups, including the then ten-year-old Committee for Green Foothills, used this to their advantage in 1972 and sued Caltrans for their failure to adhere to the federal and state acts. They won a court order to require Caltrans to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the federally-funded project.
Caltrans put the problem at Devil’s Slide on the back burner biding its time until it gained federal emergency status – when they would have been able to proceed with the bypass without having to deal with pesky environmental regulations. Caltrans employees were also instructed not to interface with environmentalists. Yet this was only the beginning of a conservation battle that stretched on for years. Over the next two decades, environmentalists had to sue again and again to prevent the Bypass.
Governor Jerry Brown, Changes at Caltrans, and the Coastal Act
In 1974, just two years after the first major lawsuit over Devil’s Slide, Governor Jerry Brown came into office for his first term. Brown placed Caltrans under the direction of Adriana Gianturco, who sought to change the agency’s focus from new highways and bridges to mass transit and the improvement of current infrastructure.
In 1976 Brown signed the California Coastal Act (CCA) requiring counties to create Local Coastal Plans (LCPs) in which natural features of the coastline were to be “protected and considered as a resource of public importance.” San Mateo County created its LCP in 1980. Despite the new wave of environmentalism in the governor’s office, environmentalists were by no means resting easy and groups like the Committee for Green Foothills were heavily involved ensuring its enforcement.
The Pendulum Swings
George Deukmejian succeeded Jerry Brown as governor of California in 1983. He reappointed pro-bypass officials at Caltrans, who dismantled many of the policies and protections set in place by the Brown administration.
Savvy of the shifting political climate, environmentalists responded by crafting Measure A, which would prevent the supervisors from altering the LCP without the consent of the voters. Measure A made its way onto the ballot in 1986 and it passed with 64% of the vote.
Even with the new law in place, Caltrans still held out hope that frustrated motorists would eventually demand the bypass. Committee for Green Foothills sought to prevent them from building the bypass in a series of court battles throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Even as Caltrans was forced to comply with all relevant legislation, the bypass remained a legally viable option. Realizing that this was less of a legal issue and more of a political one, Committee for Green Foothills once again turned to the voters, this time to mandate an alternative to the Bypass.
The voters were ready too: in 1995 they suffered through the worst closure of Devil’s Slide on record, lasting five months. Some argue that Caltrans deliberately delayed fixing the road this time in hopes of getting more of the citizens in favor of the bypass.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors convened a panel of experts to consider solutions to the issue and someone suggested an idea that Caltrans had yet to seriously consider: a tunnel.
One spokesperson for Caltrans famously told a news reporter “sure, we’ll evaluate the tunnel proposal and say it’s too expensive.” Around that same time, a Caltrans internal memo from 1993 was retrieved through exercise of the Freedom of Information Act, which demonstrated that expenses for the tunnel would be comparable to the bypass.
In 1996, Committee for Green Foothills, Sierra Club, coastal groups in Pacifica and Montara, qualified Measure T, the Tunnel Initiative for the ballot, which passed by a landslide 74% vote. Measure T amended the County’s Coastal Plan to require a tunnel instead of the Bypass. After forty years of legal and political combat, the motorists had their solution and the environmentalists had theirs. In 2007, construction for the Tom Lantos tunnels began.
With the opening of the tunnel in 2013, and the acquisition by Peninsula Open Space Trust of Rancho Corral de Tierra, the entire mountainous area between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay has been permanently protected.
Today hikers, runners, bicyclists and equestrians can enjoy the Devil’s Slide Trail. If you ever find yourself on the trail, look out for Peregrine Falcons, Common Murres, California golden poppies, wild strawberry plants, and sagebrush. More importantly, take heart knowing that a handful of thoughtful, committed people with a vision for open space made your stroll possible.