Award of Merit:
Hellish Stretch of Highway Now a Sublime Experience
Once plagued by rockslides, this stretch of coastal highway has taken on a new life as a popular path for walkers, joggers and cyclists. (Photo: Noah Berger)
The portals of the twin tunnels are ringed with textured concrete that helps them blend in with the natural landscape.
October 22, 2014
With its frequent rockslides and road closures, the old Devil’s Slide that hugged 1.3 miles of the San Mateo County coastline was indeed hellish. Now the pair of inland replacement tunnels that opened in March 2013 safely usher cars through the mountains and past the once notorious segment of Route 1 between Pacifica and Montara.
And just one year after the tunnels’ debut, the once-treacherous roadway reopened as a paved path for cyclists and pedestrians — who are free to soak in the gorgeous coastline views that were previously life-threatening to the motorists who dared take their eyes off the road. Together the two projects have brought relief and redemption for Devil’s Slide, so it is fitting that they are sharing an Award of Merit.
The tunnels are the product of decades of public input and environmental reviews, and a vote cast in 1996 by San Mateo County residents supporting the construction. A group called the Citizens’ Alliance for the Tunnel advocated tirelessly for the solution to the harrowing stretch of highway.
The process “was very involved and it took a lot of public meetings to understand what the concerns were,” said Skip Sowko, the Caltrans engineer who became the project manager in 2000.
Engineers, designers and construction crews took immense care to protect the plentiful wildlife in the area, creating a pond to protect the red-legged frog population that calls this rugged environment home. The use of textured concrete at the tunnels’ portals helps them blend in nicely with the natural terrain, per locals’ requests.
“We’re in a park-like setting, so the tunnels fit within that scene,” Sowko said. He said commuters have given him nothing but positive feedback.
“I have to give a huge shout-out to the talented team of designers, engineers and then the contractors who built the tunnel, because it’s really a collaborative process that’s resulted in a great solution to this problem we’ve had for many years,” said Lennie Roberts, a prominent local environmentalist who began fighting in the 1970s for a tunnel instead of the freeway bypass originally planned to replace Devil’s Slide.
Prior to the tunnels, the local economy suffered greatly from the frequent and lengthy closures of the road; the twin-bore tunnels are now a reliable and protected route for commuters and travelers in San Mateo County.
“This tunnel is behind all that landslide activity,” Sowko explained.
Quickly following the opening of the tunnels, highway hell was reincarnated as paved heaven for nonmotorized travel. The Devil’s Slide Trail, the latest segment of the California Coastal Trail, features bidirectional bike lanes and a 10-foot-wide lane for hikers, horseback riders, joggers and pets. Lookout spots provide stunning views of the blue ocean below.
Panels along the 1.3-mile path provide information on the history and geography of the coastal region — and the wildlife that is newly visible from the trail. “For decades falcons and other birds have been offshore and nesting right there,” said Carla Schoof, a San Mateo County Parks community programs specialist who was heavily involved in the creation of the trail. “Of course when you’re driving along that road, no one would know that.”
Schoof was thrilled but not surprised to see a huge turnout for the opening of the trail, which now averages 1,120 users a day. “It’s the peace and the relaxation and just the joy of being on that trail” that draws the crowds, she said.
— Natalie Orenstein