MONTARA -- The people behind "the people's tunnel" reunited Monday to see their once-implausible vision become a reality.

Several dozen alumni of a historic grass-roots political campaign joined elected officials and a throng of media for a colorful ceremony dedicating the new Tom Lantos Tunnels at Devils Slide. The twin 4,200-foot tubes replace a notorious stretch of Highway 1 that saw numerous traffic deaths and shutdowns after opening in 1937.

The Monday celebration reflected the unique spirit of a community that first defeated Caltrans -- winning a long, bitter dispute over the best plan for replacing the crumbling cliffside road -- and then befriended the people Caltrans tapped to carry out its wishes.

People old and young carried yellow "Think Tunnel" signs dating back to the 1996 ballot measure that forced Caltrans to build the tunnels instead of an inland freeway bypass. A Pacifica man strolled through the northbound tunnel dressed in a red smoking jacket, wearing horns and toting a pitchfork. A parade inaugurating the tunnel included a DeLorean and a unicycle. A custom 1949 Dodge Coronet wagon was driven by big-wave impresario Jeff Clark, pioneer of the Mavericks surf break just a few miles to the south.

Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, a leader of the grass-roots coalition of environmental groups and local citizens, was among 16 people who addressed the crowd on a cold, foggy morning.


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"It took an uprising of the people of this county to 'think tunnel,' 'vote tunnel,' 'build tunnel,' and today, at last, to open the tunnel," said Kersteen-Tucker, referring to the campaign's slogans. She later added, "Caltrans, aren't you glad we made you build this?"

Tribute to tenacity

The tunnels on a rocky promontory between Pacifica and Montara are state-of-the-art, with 24-hour monitoring of various safety systems -- from cameras to carbon monoxide sensors. The south portals and much of the interior feature faux-rock surfaces meticulously matched to nearby cliffs. The tunnels' ceilings are painted black to make the passages seem less confined for claustrophobic motorists.

Caltrans project manager Skip Sowko worked on the design and engineering of the tunnels for nearly two decades.

"This is as good as it gets," said Sowko, describing how it felt to see the tunnels completed. "I've been on a lot of nice jobs, but this is sweet."

The lone standing ovation Monday was reserved for Annette Lantos, wife of late Rep. Tom Lantos, who won early funding for a permanent fix to the landslide-prone highway at Devils Slide.

"He was a great man," she said of her husband. "And this tunnel is a wonderful representation of his dedication to improve the lives of those he cared for."

Another key tunnel backer who didn't live to see Monday's unveiling was Ollie Mayer, a leader of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. Kersteen-Tucker remembered Mayer, who died last week at the age of 94, as a "one-in-a-million environmental fighter."

Standing together

Environmentalists and residents near Devils Slide dug in against Caltrans' plan for a four- to six-lane bypass because it would have cut through McNee Ranch State Park and possibly led to more development on the coast. They dubbed the project unveiled Monday "the people's tunnel" in honor of their fight.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, who first got involved with Devils Slide in the 1980s while on the county board of supervisors, said she was heartened by Monday's gathering, with Caltrans and its former opponents standing side by side.

"What it says to me is that democracy worked," Eshoo said, "and the people's voices were heard."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.