The Shepherd Canyon Highway 77 Controversy

Edited by John Kaiser – Excerpt from Newsletter 2024 Q1

Imagine a 4 lane freeway exiting a tunnel near the point where Pinehurst Road begins its hairpin climb up the Oakland Hills, climbing a 6% grade over the Indian Valley Ridge, descending into the southwestern end of Moraga Valley, streaking past the south side of Miramonte High School, cutting across Moraga Way near Ivy Drive with a big cloverleaf, then passing through the pear grove north of Moraga Center right through today’s Moraga Commons, and then running along the Lafayette-Moraga Trail through Burton Valley until intersecting with Highway 24 at the Pleasant Hill interchange. Expandable to six lanes with Moraga’s population, estimated today at 16,707 people, blossoming to 50,000 people! That in 1953 was the Shepherd Canyon Highway 77 vision of Contra Costa County and the California Highway Commission (CHC) today known as Caltrans.

1953 Shepherd Canyon Freeway Proposal

The dream of overcoming the formidable barrier between Alameda and Contra Costa presented by the Oakland Hills goes back to the early Rancho days of the 19th century. On November 4, 1903 the one lane Contra Costa Tunnel with a treacherous ascent and descent was punched through near Fish Ranch Road. In 1913 the Shepherd Canyon tunnel was bored to allow a railway from Oakland through the hills, travel along Redwood Canyon, and follow the Lafayette-Moraga Trail to Lafayette. The electric train had a small footprint with stations at Canyon, Valle Vista (wiped out during the 1920s by EBMUD’s predecessor via eminent domain to create the San Leandro Reservoir), the Moraga “Barn”, and St. Mary’s College (established in 1927). Eventually renamed Sacramento Northern Railroad, the railway carried passengers and freight all the way to Chico, with passenger service ceasing in 1941 and freight service in 1957.

As early as 1924 business people in Oakland pushed for a car tunnel to parallel the Shepherd Canyon train tunnel, which would have served James Irvine’s 1913 Moraga townsite vision well. But the Depression killed the Old Moraga Townsite plan and Irvine’s Moraga Company instead turned Moraga Valley into an agribusiness until it was acquired by Utah Construction in 1953 after his death in 1947. Interest further diminished after the 1937 completion of the two bore Caldecott Tunnel which connected the four lane Highway 24 from Oakland to Orinda. But that all changed in 1947 when Congress authorized construction of a 37,000 mile national highway network, formalized in 1956 under President Dwight Eisenhower as the Interstate Highway Act.

Shepherd Canyon Freeway Proposed Routes

The Shepherd Canyon Highway 77 proposal in 1953 coincided with the purchase of the Moraga Company by Utah Construction whose business plan was to develop utilities serving residential lots it sold with template designs to “builders” who constructed the houses and marketed them to consumers. The nationwide highway boom was part of a suburbia trend where major city centers underwent an urban sprawl of what became known as “bedroom” communities whose residents commuted to work in the city. Utah Construction started in Orinda and marched its development plan eastward through the Moraga Valley.

1956 preferred route for Shepherd Canyon Freeway

The Shepherd Canyon Highway 77 plan instantly became controversial, not because people did not want the freeway, but, because of the four potential routes beyond a new Shepherd Canyon tunnel (the railway tunnel was deemed not usable and was sealed off when rail service ceased in 1957), CHC preferred the North Moraga route which became known as the “Red Route”. The reason CHC preferred the “Red Route” which bisected Moraga was because it was shorter and thus cheaper than the more roundabout routes which passed through Redwood Canyon, Indian Valley or along the northern flank of the Indian Valley Ridge where today the Moraga Country Club golf course and homes are located. This cost focus which encouraged pushing highways through the middle of communities without any regard to how this would impact urban dynamics was in later decades condemned as a very misguided strategy. The controversy put Moraga on the path to incorporation.

The Red Route is the Wrong Route

In 1956 Utah Construction and the Orinda-Moraga Homeowners Association produced a 12 page booklet called “The RED ROUTE is the WRONG ROUTE” which presented their case that the preferred CHC route had the greatest impact in terms of diminished property value, destruction of the natural beauty of Moraga Valley, and harm done to “community values” by splitting Moraga into two parts. Utah was most concerned about how the freeway would affect its residential development plan and recommended Route 1 through Redwood Canyon, arguing that a four lane freeway would at most affect 20 redwood trees, and would in fact boost public enjoyment of the second growth redwoods. This claim was attacked by Gladys Shally, a founder of the MHS, who argued that a freeway through Redwood Canyon would destroy this grove of redwoods. The groups supporting the Red Route included Donald Rheem, whose real estate holdings in the northern half of Moraga were not visually impacted, somewhat inexplicably the Moraga Community Club, a predecessor of the Moraga Country Club, and understandably the Canyon Community Club. During those years the question was about which route to build, because a major concern was rising traffic congestion getting to the “city” as the Lamorinda bedroom communities surged.

Aerial Views of preferred Shepherd Canyon Route

The Shepherd Canyon freeway got bogged down in endless studies and became known as the “never never freeway”. MHS board member Colleen Lund remembers her husband Bill attending late night community meetings during the sixties after the children had been put to bed. In 1968 the CHC added Route 93, a spur from Route 1 called Gateway that would have connected Highway 77 via Wilder Ranch to Highway 24. Another spur that would have connected Highway 77 to the 680 corridor via Bollinger Canyon was also contemplated.

Notice of Intent to Rescind Shepherd Canyon Freeway Proposal

In the end the Shepherd Canyon Highway 77 plan died thanks partly to the 1957 emergence of the Bay Area Rapid Transit plan which proposed to unite the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo. BART’s construction started in 1964 and rapid transit service began in 1972, the year the State Assembly voted 56-0 to delete Highway 77 from the state highway plan. In March 1975 the CWC published a Notice of Intent to rescind the adoption of Highways 93 and 77 which became official in July 1975, eight months after Moraga incorporated as a town to secure independence from Martinez, home of Contra Costa County, the biggest proponent of Shepherd Canyon Highway 77.

Google Earth View 2024 with Shepherd Canyon proposed routes