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December 2001

White's Hill Road Closure Could Be A Big Problem

By Elena Belsky

The White's Hill Slide Repair and Bridge project is a $5 million State and Federally funded Project, administered by the County, which seeks to correct a troublesome and hazardous slide on one of West Marin's main thoroughfares.

A little known aspect of the Slide Repair Project is that Sir Francisco Blvd. will be completely closed to traffic over White's Hill at certain times. Currently, the closures are slated to take place from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and estimates for the period over which the closures will occur range from 10 to 25 days, depending on the source of information, tentatively beginning the second week in January. Complete closures had not been scheduled at all, as recently as a few months ago, and they seem to be coming as a complete surprise to the people of West Marin, and it is not clear why the public was not informed prior to Coastal Post's inquiries.

According to project plans and specifications, the public must receive 10 days prior notice of any road closures, yet, given the magnitude of potential impacts to the community, earlier notice, and solicitation of public input would seem appropriate.

The County has established a White's Hill informational webpage and a hotline number (see end of article), but the website contains very little current information, and neither has been widely published for the public.

The White's Hill Bridge Project is considered unique, according to Kevin McGowan a Marin County Engineer, "It is the largest Simple Support Span west of the Mississippi," which has received an "Innovative Grant" from State and Federal sources due to the unusual length of span (380 feet) and use of new materials (Core Ten Steel girders with twice the yield strength of regular steel). When asked if they had ever built a bridge of this large a size, the lead contractor, West Bay Builders responded that this was their first large bridge, but that they had constructed smaller bridges.

As a part of the construction of the steel bridge, huge steel I-beams (80 foot by 14 foot) must be transported to the site, properly placed by massive cranes, then secured together to form a section of the bridge. It is due to the large scale of the equipment and materials necessary for this phase of the construction that Sir Francis Drake Boulevard must be completely closed to all vehicle traffic.

The San Geronimo Valley community became concerned recently, when questions about the White's Hill Repair Project were broached at a meeting held in Woodacre, in October, to discuss local issues with County Supervisor Steve Kinsey. In response to questions from the audience, Kinsey informed the public of the road closures to take place, possibly in December, for approximately 20 days Monday thru Friday, from 10 PM to 5 am. And that there would be no through traffic, even emergency vehicles must detour through the longer and much more windy Lucas Valley Road. In an attempt to allay residents fears and concerns, Kinsey assured the crowd that it was necessary, and that, "We all will have to make sacrifices and suffer a small inconvenience to our lives." Also he stated that there was a written Contingency Plan for Emergencies, and (responding to an audience request) he would make it available in the Valley for review by the public. As it turns out, the emergency plan to which Kinsey referred did not yet exist.

Plans and specifications for the project mandate that within 15 days of the proposed road closure, the contractor must submit a closure plan with specific elements, including signage placement, emergency plans, scope of work, time, date, etc. The Project engineer, Paul Chang, then has 5 days to distribute the proposal to all pertinent emergency or safety agencies for their review: Public Works, County Road Commissioner, County Fire Department, Quincy Engineering, California Highway Patrol, Marin County Sheriff, Fairfax Police Department, Ross Valley Fire Department, and American Medical Response.

The public will receive 10 days advance notification of the road closures, mostly by a large electronic message board at the site. There is no process for public participation or review of the specifics of the road closure.

When the Coastal Post interviewed the contractor, County Project Engineer, County Fire Department, and Public Works, and asked similar questions of each, the answers differed greatly.

How long will the road be closed? brought the following responses: Paul Chang, Project Engineer: best case, 5 nights, worst case 10 plus nights with breaks in between for delivery of materials; Public Works department and Supervisor Kinsey's 20 nights continuous evening closure; West Bay Builders Superintendent Mike Gram, 25 weeknights in succession.

Regarding the opening of the road for emergency vehicles: the Project Engineer indicated that there would be no passage, and that helicopters or Lucas Valley would have to be used; Supervisor Kinsey said the same; West Bay Builders promised that they would maintain an "openable" lane at all time for emergency vehicles.

And finally, when asked about the placement and frequency of detour signs during the road closure: the Project Engineer said that his goal was to "cover local residents" and indicated that signs as far as highway 101 were not feasible; County Public Works said that the location of signage has not been yet been reviewed and may include notices closer to the Highways; while West Bay Builders said the detour signs will be 300 feet from the closure, and any additional signs were at the discretion of the County (although the bid specifications state that all signs are the responsibility of the contractor, with no additional money coming from the County).

Regarding the community's concern of road closure to emergency vehicles, Marin County Fire Chief, Stan Rowan, said they were not anticipating any big problems, and taking a "wait and see" attitude." "The road might not really be "closed" completely -there's often a narrow lane that can be used," he said. In response to concerns raised about increased medical emergency transport times, Chief Rowan indicated that most first aid calls are stabilized on the scene by emergency personnel, and they "rarely have code 3s" (true medical emergencies).

And if they do need immediate transport to a hospital, the helicopter is the preferred method; although expensive, it can land in West Marin and have the patient flown to any hospital in under 15 minutes.

Other, ongoing concerns about the project include temporary lane modifications that have altered some turns so that traffic is more acutely directed off the road or at traffic headed in the other direction, and the use of barriers that have narrowed the lanes and made passage particularly dangerous for bicycle traffic (at least one accident involving a bicycle has happened near the construction zone).

Given the magnitude and scope of the possible adverse issues with such a heavily trafficked route being closed, it would behoove the County to do a more thorough job of informing the public in advance, and to create opportunities for public input.

In such an important matter as this, it seems prudent and reasonable for all parties to meet, compare notes and issues as soon as possible, in order to offer consistent, accurate and timely information to the community.

For the safety of all concerned, drivers should travel through the construction area with extreme caution, and

no faster than the posted construction speed limit of 25 miles per hour. CHP and Sheriff patrols have been added to the area.

The White's Hill Repair hotline number for traffic information is 1 (800) 959-2000. Updates are also listed on the County's Project website (www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/pw/main/newsletters/whtoc.cfm)

 

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