Friday, October 1 marked a major milestone in bringing to fruition a project fought for--and against--by residents and politicians in San Mateo County and San Francisco.
The Devil's Slide Tunnel Initiative, which approved the construction of a tunnel on Highway 1 that would bypass the treacherous stretch of that highway prone to mudslides and crumbling, was voted in by 74% of San Mateo County residents in 1996, while residents of San Francisco lent their support, mostly, through comment.
It's understandable, then, that the crowd gathered at the construction site where crews have been working long to bore through solid rock to the west of Devil's Slide displayed a strong sense of community and several wore (now vintage) yellow t-shirts and carried bumper stickers with slogans that many residents of Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and Montara will remember: "Think Tunnel," and "Build Tunnel - We Can Dig It."
When the big moment came--when crews would seemingly punch through the southernmost layer of rock the tunnel would pass through--guests gathered close and the loud (but unseen) tunneling machine began to roar. Though this was a staged event (for safety's sake, the tunnel had been "punched through" ahead of time and resealed before the event), the crowd was excited and their cheering genuinely enthusiastic when the machine broke through after about 5 minutes of drilling. The tunneling machine continued until the hole was big enough for Caltrans workers to walk through, which they did, before shaking hands with a line of elected officials wearing Caltrans hard hats and safety boots. The workers were lauded as the true heroes and constructors of the tunnel, as well as for being responsible for being several weeks ahead of schedule.
Prior to the "Punch-Through," speakers talked about the long journey that took the tunnel from an idea to a reality, and praised the many people responsible for it.
Lennie Roberts, a tunnel advocate in the community, received a standing ovation for her work as one of the tunnel's "visionaries." Roberts referred to the project as "the people's tunnel," a sentiment echoed by many, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who presided over the event. Speier called the tunnel a "tribute to democracy" and California Senator Leland Yee said the tunnel is "about you...the people who said, 'Yes.'"
One of the biggest victories of the tunnel, supporters claim, is the peace of mind it will bring to commuters and others who drive that stretch of Highway 1. Regularly closed during the year--mainly in the winter--due to mudslides or rockslides, the curving stretch of highway along Devil's SLide--precariously set on the brink of cliffs--is infamously treacherous. Often shrouded in fog, it's a hazard even to long time residents familiar with its many twists.
Cindy McKim, Director at the California Department of Transportation, stated that she is happy to "finally resolve" the problem of the dangerous coastline that has plagued locals for decades. Walter "Butch" Waidelich, District Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, spoke of the dangers of Devil's Slide as well but gave heartening statistics about the increasing safety of California highways in general and encouraged motorists to take safety into their own hands and to not give in to the "epidemic...of distracted driving."
There were several poignant moments in reference to the late Congressman Tom Lantos, who died in 2008. He is credited with being the driving political force behind the tunnel.
Evelyn Szelenyi, Congressman Lantos' former Chief of Staff, spoke of his determination to have the tunnel built. She told the crowd that she was "heartbroken" that he wouldn't be able to see it completed. As stated by Speier, the tunnel will be named in honor of Lantos, to show gratitude for his tireless work on the project.
Half Moon Bay Mayor Marina Fraser spoke of the tunnel as an important means of connecting commerce along the coast. She presented a pumpkin--the long time symbol of Half Moon Bay--to Bijan Sartipi, District 4 Director of the California Department of Transportation and emcee of Friday's event.
Pacifica Mayor Sue Digre and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Ann Nihart also spoke, discussing their relief that slides that have closed down Devil's Slide in the past will no longer be an issue once the tunnel is completed.
Friday's event marked the opening of the northbound tunnel. The southbound tunnel is expected to be open by the middle of October and the tunnels are slated to open in late 2011 or early 2012.