After a power outage and what many described as a communication breakdown led to hours of gridlock on the San Mateo County coastside in March, utility companies and state agencies have taken steps to prevent such occurrences from happening again. 

On March 12, a power outage necessitated the closure of the Tom Lantos tunnels because the overhead jet fans, needed to maintain air quality and prevent fires, could not operate. That forced many residents in and around Half Moon Bay to return home via State Route 92 instead, but there was a lane closure on that highway at the same time due to pre-planned tree trimming. As a result, motorists reported sitting in traffic for up to four hours that day. There was widespread frustration about the tunnels being closed for eight hours and many wondered why Caltrans and Pacific Gas and Electric were unable to communicate with one another and put the tree trimming on pause at the time. There was also frustration that SMC Alert, the county’s emergency alert system, failed to notify users when the tunnels on Highway 1 just south of Pacifica reopened. 

All of those concerns were addressed during a meeting with lawmakers and the relevant agencies June 28 and several measures have already been implemented, according to a press release issued by the office of state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

Redundant power lines to provide electrical power to the tunnels are now in place and “the improvement greatly reduces the likelihood of outages due to power failures, which can lead to the closure of tunnels,” according to the release. 

Caltrans is also exploring an alternative means of emergency power for the tunnels, said spokesman Jeff Weiss.

“Whether it’s a generator or a battery — these are both things under consideration at this time,” Weiss said.

Weiss said the meeting will also help improve communication amongst the relevant agencies and to the public.

“Our lines of communication have been clarified and strengthened and we know who to call when urgent issues occur,” he said.

Weiss noted that while communication and technological improvements have been made, none of the circumstances that occurred March 12 would have compromised the emergency evacuation plan for the region.

“We feel the overall evacuation plan is strong and these incidents don’t disrupt that,” he said, adding that if the circumstances were dire, then the tunnels would be reopened even if the jet fans were down and State Route 92 could be converted to one-lane route, for example. 

Kevin Rose, manager of Emergency Services for San Mateo County, said his agency and California Highway Patrol are also working more closely together to improve the SMC alert system. 

“The messaging will be tightened and include better information with regard to the city [in which a given incident occurred] and what city is sending the message because if we’re sending a message on behalf of another agency, clearly defining that will help people know what websites to check for real-time updates or radio updates,” he said. 

The various improvements have been applauded by local officials.

“The ongoing collaboration between utilities, state agencies and law enforcement is a testament to the seriousness of our connectivity issues along the coast and the determination of all parties to keep the coastside connected and resilient,” Assemblyman Berman, D-Palo Alto, said in the release. “I am grateful for thoughtfulness and expediency with which steps have been made since April to reduce the number of disruptive and harmful power and internet outages that impact the coastside.” 

Hill said he is very impressed with the work accomplished since the April forum.

“The steps taken already, and the plans for further improvement, all point toward success,” he said in the release. “The organizations deserve credit for acknowledging the problems, working to address them and making solutions a priority.”

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