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May 18, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Tunnel groundbreaking a triumph for Ollie Mayer Tunnel groundbreaking a triumph for Ollie Mayer (May 18, 2005)

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

Woodside conservationist Olive Mayer first had tunnel vision 35 years before officials broke ground on May 6 to make one happen.

About 1971, Ms. Mayer and the Sierra Club were proposing a tunnel to bypass the notorious section of Highway 1 that kept falling into the ocean around Devil's Slide, between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay.

The tunnel idea went nowhere then, because Caltrans was going to bid to build a four -- ultimately eight -- lane freeway, slashing through Montara Mountain, that would bypass the slide-prone stretch of highway and open the coast for a new city.

Ms. Mayer and the Sierra Club brought a lawsuit -- the first of several -- that stopped the highway bypass. She has been a key player ever since in the political fights that eventually led to approval and funding of a two-bore, two-lane tunnel that should open in 2011.

"Without Ollie, we wouldn't be getting a tunnel. The bypass would have happened," said April Vargas, a vice president of the Committee for Green Foothills and a Coastside leader in the campaign to build a tunnel. "She continues to inspire people. That is her great gift."

Ms. Mayer was one of many stars when more than 300 revelers gathered May 6 -- a sunny Friday in Half Moon Bay -- to celebrate groundbreaking for the $275 million project.

"I was elated," she said in an interview later. "All those years of work, all that effort, and here we are. We made it over the top."

"If ever there was a community project, this is it," said Congressman Tom Lantos, D-Hillsborough, at the party. "This is a transportation miracle which is environmentally sound."



High-stakes fight

When Ms. Mayer plunged into San Mateo County's conservation wars in the 1960s, the political landscape was very different. Growth was still the big goal, and "environment" a fresh, untried word.

San Mateo County's Master Plan called for freeways along the coast, and crossing the county, to serve a new city of some 150,000 planned around Half Moon Bay.

Ms. Mayer learned to love San Mateo County's rural Coastside, hiking its trails and absorbing its beauty.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she led hikes of school children, scouts and parents, and passed along her passion for the land to new generations. Her women's "Wednesday" hiking group is still legendary.

"I saw erosion, logging, the terrible condition of streams," she says. "Then I began to get interested in politics."

Ms. Mayer's legacies stretch far beyond the Devil's Slide bypass and tunnel. She founded the San Mateo County group of the Sierra Club and fought fiercely for conservation on many fronts, including serving a term on the Woodside Town Council in the 1970s.

After 28 years, the Ollie Mayer Hiker's Hut in Pescadero Park still welcomes hikers and groups for a cozy night. "It's in wonderful shape," she says proudly.

But it was the threat of a freeway down the coast and the resulting development that engaged her passionately for 35 years. Developers Westinghouse-Deane & Deane owned thousands of acres around Half Moon Bay, where they planned a city of around 150,000.

"The highway was the key to the development," she says. "Without transportation, they couldn't build all those houses."



From bypass to tunnel

Caltrans was actually buying the right-of-way and going out to bid for the freeway shown on county plans in 1971, when Ms. Mayer and the Sierra Club filed suit to require that Caltrans perform environmental-impact studies mandated by then-new federal laws.

The suit was successful; Caltrans lost the money and dropped the project -- for a while.

"That stopped it," she says. "They would have been building in 1971 if it hadn't been for our lawsuit."

The battle continued off and on over the next 20 years, in the community and at all levels of government. There was a lull when Jerry Brown was governor. Then the road slid out in 1980, and again in 1983 -- leaving thousands of commuters backed up on Highway 92, and bringing more calls for a solution.

By this time, Proposition 20 had passed, creating the California Coastal Commission with authority over the coast, and the state Legislature passed the Coastal Act, which specified that rural roads along the coast should be two lanes.

The 1980s brought more Caltrans plans for a bypass, while more lawsuits from the Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills and others kept progress stalled.

Meanwhile, another alternative, which called for pushing a hefty chunk of the slide into the ocean, gained popularity -- until creation of a marine sanctuary offshore killed it.

Ms. Mayer was at the forefront through all of these fights. She journeyed to Sacramento and Washington, she rallied conservationists at home, she testified in Redwood City, she planned lawsuits, she wrote reams of eloquent prose extolling the beauties of the coast.

"I gave my whole life to this for all those years," she says in her Woodside living room. "I'm exhausted."

Chris Thollaug of Montara, one of the recent campaign leaders, says, "Ollie was the glue that provided continuity and tenacity for the campaign."

In the 1990s the idea of a tunnel -- long rejected by Caltrans -- resurfaced as geologists approached Supervisors Ted Lempert and Ruben Barrales, who pushed for studies. Another major slide closed the road in 1995, raising the pressure to find a solution.

Measure T supporting the tunnel appeared on the San Mateo County ballot in 1996. When more than 74 percent of county voters approved it, momentum built to design the project, find the money, get the permits, and build the tunnel. Many former opponents joined the campaign. Several lawsuits against the tunnel went nowhere.

"Ollie was the inspiration and leader of the movement to keep the bypass from happening," says Mr. Lempert. "She opened the way for a more sensible alternative."

"I always wanted a tunnel," Ms. Mayer says. She credits the grass-roots energy of new, younger people from the Coastside who fought to protect their community. "It was new organizations and new people, not the old Sierra Club."

Zoe Kirsteen-Tucker, one of the dynamic Coastside leaders, acknowledges it was inevitable that something would be built. "The challenge was to build something in keeping with our needs and surroundings," she says. "Ollie was the ultimate marathon runner in the effort dating back to the 1960s."

At the big tunnel celebration, someone asked what the tunnel should be named. A voice called out from the crowd: "The Olive Mayer Tunnel."

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