County officials are moving ahead with plans for the construction of a concrete median barrier on portions of the road traveled by 20,000 commuters per day, and which has claimed the lives of 27 people in the last decade. But because the road cuts through the habitat of the tiger salamander and the red-legged frog, measures must also be put in place to help preserve those endangered species.
"We are looking at potentially time-intensive and costly reviews regarding the environmental aspects of the barrier project," said Supervisor Mary Piepho. "The hills in the Vasco corridor are extremely environmentally protected and there are standards that must be complied with."
When the first improvements to Vasco Road were made in 1996, special culverts were installed to steer the animals toward pipes that provide migration routes beneath the roadway. Now, as safety improvements are being considered, the county public works department, under the provisions of the East County Conservation Plan, is again studying the potential impact of additional road construction.
Should it be decided that the salamanders and frogs would be put at increased risk of becoming road kill as they make their way across the median barrier, additional animal-friendly structures might need to be built. Such enhancements could necessitate the rebuilding of the current culverts and tunnels along the 2.5 miles of affected roadway, or possibly the construction of an animal overpass.
"That (the overpass) is a possibility, but certainly no decisions have been made yet," said Chris Lau, project planner with the county public works department. "Yes, it could be costly; probably around a million; maybe higher."
Because it is not always possible to monitor the numbers of critters using the pint-sized subways versus those who dash across the highway, it is the job of professionals like Lau to make sense of it all.
"We are conducting movement studies to determine where exactly they (salamanders and frogs) are on Vasco," said Lau. The studies include counting the numbers of animals caught in traps or killed on the road.
"Because we are talking about putting in a hard barrier, at least for a portion of the road, we need to make sure that it doesn't disturb them."
So while the county works to secure the remaining dollars needed for the barrier project (roughly $10 million), Piepho also supports exploring options for fast-tracking the environmental process, believing that the longer the county continues to study the endangered species, the longer it will take to secure the public's safety.
"The fast track should be on saving human lives," said Piepho. "That's what we are focused on and where our commitment continues to be. That's our priority."