Cutting edge Calif. tunnels poised to open
By MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press
Updated 9:52 am, Monday, February 25, 2013
"I'm not going to like going through those tunnels, but it's mind over matter," said Phoebe McGaw, working in a coffee shop a few miles south of the project. "And it's about time they finish."
Neither on budget nor on time, it was a 5-year, $240 million project when it launched in 2006. Seven years and $439 million later, Y. Nien Wang, project manager for design contractor HNTB Corp., said seismic concerns, along with few existing standards and regulations, made it a particularly challenging project.
The Federal Highway Administration is only now developing national tunnel inspection standards, and doesn't track information on tunnels in any systematic way. And since this was the first tunnel constructed in decades in California, there were many first-time decisions to be made about seismic safety and design.
"A lot of what we did will be a model for future tunnel work in California," said Wang.
The one-lane tunnels with wide shoulders for stalled cars and bicycles are built to withstand a magnitude 7.5 to 8.0 earthquake, the maximum movement geologists estimate for this reach of the San Andreas fault.
Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus said the site's geology also added costs. With one set of machinery for soft rock, a different set for hard rock, crews dug with what were at the time the two largest excavators in the country, 148 tons each. Each time they bumped into a different type of rock, they would have to swap out the entire set of machinery.
"We had to demobilize, remobilize, demobilize, remobilize," Haus said. "That adds up."
And then there were the red-legged frogs. Early on, planners realized that at least one of the 256 streams this protected species lives in ran close to the tunnel sites. Thus, a team of three biologists were hired to protect whatever frogs they could find.
Going from sliding roadway to high-tech tunnels has been a grinding process for U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who spent hours in emotional hearings about the slide as a county supervisor 25 years ago.
"When we first started debating this issue, I was young and frisky. Now I'm old and color my hair," she said. "But residents on the coast no longer have to live in fear that their road will wash out and they'll be stranded."
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