Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Davis Toad Tunnel

If you think Moscow is a screwy college town, permit me to tell you that it doesn't come close to the home of my alma mater.

Davis is the touchy-feely, naiveté capital of the world. And nowhere is it more obvious than the famous "Toad Tunnel."

Science has gotten in the way of feel-good mythology about the famous Davis Toad Tunnel.

"No record occurs of the tunnel ever being used by a toad," said John McNerney, Davis wildlife resource specialist. "It was well- intentioned but not successful."

The toad tunnel, installed a dozen years ago this summer under a new overcrossing ramp, was intended to prevent the amphibians from being squished by cars.

Apparently, the toads never used the tunnel enough, if at all, and the population of toads that once hopped around the area has died out.

City officials through the years have questioned whether the toads actually ever used the tunnel. McNerney this week confirmed those suspicions.

The last couple of years, he surveyed for toad larvae -- tadpoles -- in the toad's drainage pond. The results were not good.

"I have not found any Western toad larva in the pond," McNerney said.

When the celebrated toad tunnel of Yolo County was being built in 1995, it made news on CNN and was lampooned on Comedy Central.

And Davis resident Ted Puntillo wrote "The Toads of Davis," a children's book about the undercrossing. He noted that the toad tunnel became "really world known."

Puntillo also constructed "Toad Hollow," a whimsical doll-house-sized group of structures at one end of the toad tunnel. He said he plans to refurbish the worn, decorative amphibian houses and toad outhouse.

Puntillo, 87, was saddened by the latest news about the toads. He believes the toads once used the tunnel because he saw them in Toad Hollow.

"It did work when they watered," at one end of the tunnel at the post office on Pole Line Road.

Toads are migratory to a degree, hibernating in the upland areas in the ground. When it starts to rain, and the mood hits them, they mass together to reproduce.

Generally, that is in a body of water, in this case a drainage pond across Pole Line Road from the post office.

Before the overcrossing project, toads were flattened on Pole Line Road, but the population survived.

Then, in 1995, the big overcrossing construction began on Pole Line to take traffic over Interstate 80. The tunnel cost about $14,000 of the total $7 million price of the project, which bridged the interstate, railroad tracks and Second Street to link north and south Davis.

The overcrossing entailed creating a raised section of roadway for the road, curbs and a median on Pole Line.

"When they put in that Pole Line overcrossing, it put up a giant earth berm that was a big physical barrier to them," McNerney said.

Being resourceful creatures, the toads can overcome a hill like the overcrossing berm, McNerney said. But other overcrossing features were not toad-friendly.

"It had lots of vehicles traveling on it," McNerney said. "That was a real hazard. And the road tops with high curbs and the median made it difficult."

McNerney said that toads also probably had difficulty finding the tunnel opening. And he wondered how the toads would know that it was the entrance to a subterranean path from one side of Pole Line Road to the other.

Additionally, the 220-foot-long toad tunnel, made of corrugated steel, had design flaws. The opening was shaped like a steel scoop and became hot.

"Toads tend not to jump onto a frying pan when they can avoid it," he said. "It failed. It didn't work for them."

The Davis City Council and its residents "toadally" had their hearts in the right place when the council gave the go-ahead for the tunnel, he said. That is not a myth.

Former Mayor Julie Partansky, who spearheaded the drive for the unusual tunnel, said in a 1999 Bee story that the toads had not jumped at the opportunity to use the pipeline.

However, there was no study to back up her suspicions. She long suspected the toads found it unnatural to hop through a tube.

"I don't think it was designed right," she said on Wednesday. "Toads in nature don't go down a long, dark tunnel."

Another drawback for the toads has been development that filled once-empty fields on the post-office side of the tunnel, Partansky said.

She is saddened that the tunnel didn't keep the toad population alive, especially since reports indicate that amphibians worldwide are threatened.

"Our intentions were good," she said.

And, of course, it's all about good intentions.

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