Wading through the Eureka/Arcata Corridor Confusion

 

Enormous potholes and rock slides cause accidents on local roads across Humboldt.  Why can’t the County fix these things?  And why the heck are they supporting big changes like the Eureka/Arcata Corridor project and not fixing our local roads. We’re all tired of the situation.  No one wants to be the next person (like the one in the photo above) hiking across a slide to get to and from work.

According to Supervisor Mark Lovelace, the County has over 1300 miles of road to maintain every year and only $13 million to do it.  That is $10,000 per mile which sounds like a lot until you realize the extent of repairs which must be done in this one of the most volatile landscapes in the United States.  Here’s a photo from a road in Kneeland which shows our persistently moving roads.

 

 

We all are frustrated by the lack of money to fix the problems and the first question at the Fennell/Clendenen 2nd Supervisor District debates Sunday night brought up the funds going to fix the Eureka/Arcata corridor.  

Now, I’ve spent hours trying to comprehend this one situation (and my hat is off to both candidates who not only need to discuss this point but hundreds of others knowledgeably) and I think Estelle Fennell made errors in her statement and her position. I’m going to try and lay out the facts simply so you can decide what you think.

Fennell charged at the debate that the county’s decision to support the Eureka-Arcata Safety Corridor project robbed funds best used for local road maintenance. Clendenen argued that these funds were not really available for County use.

To get clarity on the details, I talked to Marcella Clem, executive Directer of HCAOG (Humboldt County Association of Governments.)  That is her muddy feet in the photo above. You can see that she has found herself on the wrong side of a slide and knows the woes of Humboldt County roads. But what makes her an authority on the Eureka/Arcata Corridor project?  Well, HCAOG, a board comprised of representatives from Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Ferndale, Fortuna, Rio Dell, Trinidad, and the County of Humboldt, is “largely responsible for programming State highway, local street and road improvements in our area” and they are the ones who voted in December for a phased in version of the project.

The funding for the work on the Corridor comes from State Transportation Improvement Program or STIP. One of the first points Clem made was “The S in STIP is for State.”  She wanted me to be clear that while STIP funds are to give locals some control over money spent on roads, a priority is given to transportation projects that are on state (as opposed to county or city) roads. State roads are major arteries like Hwy 101 and State Route 299. County and city roads are the other public roads like the road to Shelter Cove, etc. The intent of the STIP is to improve state highways.  The money is from the state highway account and administered by the California Transportation Commission (CTC).

Sometimes it is used to help local roads. In fact, Tom Mattson, Humboldt County’s Public Works Director says, “Virtually every two year cycle of STIP funding, local roads have been funded.”

Clem agrees that there are provisions to use STIP money on county roads and county needs, if, she says, there is a surplus (not likely in this fiscal climate) but, the intent is to spend these dollars on the State Highway system. However, Clem pointed out that twelve years ago, HCAOG, (Humbodlt County’s representative) along with Caltrans, had identified that one of the major transportation concerns for our county was the Eureka/Arcata Corridor.  Through a series of public meetings and environmental overviews, the current Eureka/Arcata corridor plan was decided on.

Now, it is possible for HCAOG to scrap their recommendation, start over and argue to the California Transportation Commission that they don’t want the corridor improvements and they would rather have money to spend on county roads.  Basically, to make an analogy though, Humboldt stood in line at the swings and now it’s their turn.  But they can’t decide to move over to the monkey bars at this point and still expect to be the first in line.

Currently, state highway transportation needs vastly exceed available revenue.  Clem says, if we don’t have a state highway project for the money, then county road needs are unlikely to successfully compete for funds that are already in huge demand.  Like a mother hen with her own chicks, the state is likely to fund projects on the state highway system rather than on the system of roads that the county is responsible for. Mattson agrees.  He says, “If you decide not to fund [a state highway recommended project,] you are pretty much asking not to be funded for any local road project.”

Thus, it appears to me that Fennell misunderstood the situation.  It is true that the County could have scrapped the plan but the chance of getting funding for local projects would have been pretty unlikely. Therefore the county would have lost the funding for the Eureka/Arcata Corridor project and not gained anything.

What HCAOG and Clendenen eventually voted for was a phased in version of the project.  This allows for the County to apply for funds from STIP again in a few years. Now, there are people who wonder whether the project is the right thing to do.  Supervisor Mark Lovelace wishes that it contained a dedicated bike trail. He wonders how sea level rise will affect the Corridor and how the changes will affect his constituents that live in near that area.  Still he says, “Given that I have concerns, this [phased in version of the project] has helped it move forward while not consuming all the funding.”

(Below I’m going to repeat the question asked at the debate and give each of the candidate’s responses and rebuttals.)

Here’s the question Ed Denson read, (my insertions are in italics.)

Denson: This involves the Highway 101 safety corridor between Arcata and Eureka. It was available for reconstruction funding and the state said before they’d fund it they needed matching funds from the county. Supervisor Clendenen made the motion to give the state some of the STIP money that could otherwise be used to repair roads in the second district. Now it will be some years before additional STIP money is available and we are starting to have road problems.  Please discuss. [Note the question shows a misunderstanding of the situation and that is understandable, this is complicated.]

Clendenen:..that is not entirely correct. The STIP, State Transportation Improvement Program, is a fund that used to be entirely state funds. In the last few years, they’ve allowed cities and the county to join in that. HCAOG [Humboldt County Association of Governments] has control of that. But there is a state component selected by Caltrans. They selected Eureka/Arcata Corridor. Coupled with that, we have our whole list of projects all around the county including Southern Humboldt…   You have to have a state project in order to have a viable STIP application which goes in front of the Public Utilities Commission. [I believe Clif should have said California Transportation Commission.] I made the motion …when I was the HCAOG representative at the time.  Working with staff, …,  we pared down our recommendation for that corridor improvement project.  It is a $24 million dollar STIP, $16 million dollar project that is going to get further contraction at the Coastal Commission level.  That is our best chance, its counter intuitive, but that’s our best chance to get county road money…We have at least $8 million left. Now the state with its challenges might not fund any of this. But if you have only City and county funds in your STIP, you might as well leave it on the desk. It is not going anywhere. It has to have a state project. That was an 8-1 vote.[Actually I believe it was 8-2.] I made the motion to do that….That is our best chance for county road funds.

Fennell: Well,…people ask me about the difference between me and Clif and  here is one clear opportunity for you to understand the way I feel about these issues. First of all, the Arcata/Eureka Safety Corridor is part of Hwy 101. That makes it an inter-regional project. It is eligible for funding that we can’t have for County roads called SHOPP funding which is for State Highway Operation and Protection Program .. Because of the way things are going with the Arcata/Eureka corridor, it has missed an opportunity to get SHOPP funding. Now it wants to move forward and it asks the county to fork over our funding which is STIP funding. STIP funding is for State Transportation Improvement Projects. It goes for such things as improving county roads, not just potholes but actually doing solid improvement. We can’t afford deferred maintenance any more. We can’t afford just patching potholes. What my opponent did by voting for this was he ignored the needs of the 2nd District… By virtue of fact, this actually gives $16 million dollars to Caltrans for the Arcata/Eureka project and $8 Million to the County. Without this we could have had $16 million. [In my opinion this is incorrect based on the research I detailed above with the HCAOG Executive Director. This money would be extremely unlikely to come from state funds to go to county roads.] I just disagree completely on this issue. …Further what we really need to see is …I’ve heard some news about the Arcata/Eureka project that the Coastal Commission may put up blocks against it and may say that the only thing they can use for the safety corridor is some traffic lights. …Bottom line though, we are always asked if the supervisor can make a difference in how much money is spent on county roads. This supervisor got a chance to answer yes and he said no.

Clendenen: …That is just factually incorrect. The SHOPP program doesn’t exist now for that project. You can check with Caltrans on that. The fact remains that yes it is a 16 million dollar project tying up a lot of money that will likely get significantly contracted at the Coastal Commission review… That is the only chance to get anything. I know it is counter intuitive… The way the rules are that’s the only chance of getting any county road funding was to vote for that.

Fennell:… I disagree. The fact of the matter is the SHOPP funding is gone because Caltrans … lost the opportunity because of the delays in the project so bottom line the $16 million dollars could have gone to the county road fund…I disagree respectfully and I think that what we really need to keep in mind is that is a vote that does not reflect the concerns of the 2nd District as the city council in Fortuna and Rio Dell and everybody else …opposed that vote.

(You can listen to the whole debate here thanks to the incredible community service KMUD offers.)

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Full disclosure: I work with Estelle Fennell on the SoHumAwareness site and have found her easy to work with and knowledgeable. On the other hand, Barbara Truitt who is not only family but a woman I respect greatly is a supporter of Clif Clendenen and I have been to a fundraiser for him in the past at her home. I personally like both the candidates. I have not yet made up my mind who to vote for which is why I’m going through the debate with a fine tooth comb. Also, warning, my family has worked for Caltrans in the past and my husband currently works there so be aware of any possible prejudice this might create.

Top photo by Marcella Clem.

Bottom Photo by Mark Lovelace.

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