Caltrans crews unable to get Highway 1 open through Big Sur

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A shot of the Big Sur coastline as storm clouds begin to gather. 

Bruno Ehrs/Getty Images

Earlier this week, as storm clouds began to gather off the coast and conversations in cafes started to feature the words “atmospheric river” once more, one large section of California coastline remained not quite recovered from last year’s historic storm season.  
 
Big Sur, which refers to a giant unincorporated swath of the Central Coast that spans over 70 miles on California’s State Route 1, between Malpaso Creek to the north and San Carpoforo Creek Beach to the south, was on the receiving end of storm damage that included power outages, structural damage, fallen trees, overflowing creeks and river beds and — most notably — the closure of the only arterial road in and out.  
 
A key stretch of that part of Highway 1, known as Paul’s Slide, starts at Lime Creek just south of Esalen Institute in Monterey County and ends at Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County. It was shut down on Jan. 8.  
 
And while the footprint of the affected area of the slide has shrunk, and Caltrans workers are continuing to remove more than 500,000 cubic yards of debris, the reality for Big Sur residents — along with those who love to pay a visit — has set in as the wet season’s first drops fall from the sky: There is no timeline for through traffic to run once more on Highway 1.  

Landslide at Paul’s Slide on Highway 1, Calif.Caltrans
Landslide at Paul’s Slide on Highway 1, Calif.Caltrans

“As far as an estimate for reopening, the two factors that make it extremely challenging to estimate are continued slide activity and winter weather,” Caltrans spokesperson Kevin Drabinski told SFGATE via phone on Monday. “We’re not in a position because of the two conditions that we’re working under. We are unable to forecast [a reopening date].” 
 
During the summer and early fall, the footprint of the closed area was about 2 miles between Limekiln State Park to the south and the town of Lucia to the north. “We lost the roadway at Dani Creek. It just reopened about a tenth of a mile south of Lucia,” Drabinski said, noting the total closure area after the installation of a new culvert at Dani Creek has shrunk down to about a mile. “So, we see progress. But it has been a marathon repair, that’s certainly been the case.  
 
“Our crews really haven’t taken a day off or missed a significant amount of time since we started. We’ve been out there seven days a week.” 

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Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week at an area known as Paul’s Slide to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. The road will remain closed through the winter months with no current timetable for reopening. 

Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week at an area known as Paul’s Slide to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. The road will remain closed through the winter months with no current timetable for reopening. 

Kevin Drabinski/Caltrans

Beyond the slide’s massive area and the amount of debris involved in the repair are the daily challenges (and dangers) of dealing with a mountainside that continues to erode. Drabinski said he felt the perilousness of the project when he recently visited the closed-down stretch of two-lane coastal highway.  
 
“I was up there three weeks ago and got taken up to the work site,” he said. “We were driven in a quad from the top of where we cut the slide. When we stopped and got out, there was a gentleman who didn’t make eye contact. He’s got a radio and a sightline. He’s there to spot debris coming down from the mountain — he’s there to alert crews and [those operating] machinery below, ‘Hey, it’s coming down.’ Outside of our view, there’s another spotter farther up the mountain. 
 
“The mountain has continued to slide during this repair. It will continue to [slide] after the road is open.” 

Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week to try to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. 

Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week to try to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. 

Kevin Drabinski/Caltrans

In the most heavily trafficked areas of Big Sur, those who make their living in part from travelers coming through have been patiently waiting for a fully open Highway 1. At this point, however, the reality of that happening is far off — and it’s a reality that’s been widely accepted, maybe even embraced.  
 
In April, Matt Glazer, general manager of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, close to the northern end of the slide, told SFGATE that Big Sur is “America’s most beautiful cul-de-sac right now.” 
 
The phrase caught on as a sort of rallying cry to show that the area was still open for business, even if visitors couldn’t drive straight through. Did it work?  
 
“The summer was a little slower,” Cara Borkes, manager at Fernwood Tavern, told SFGATE Tuesday. “I’m the restaurant manager here for front of the house and had to talk about it with the staff. They definitely didn’t make the money they had before. 
 
“But yeah, the general consensus now is we’re still worried about the weather. We’re anticipating a wet winter and expecting to go into it pretty slow.” 

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Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week at an area known as Paul’s Slide to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. 

Since January, Caltrans crews have been working seven days a week at an area known as Paul’s Slide to remove 500,000 cubic yards of debris that spilled over Highway 1, choking off access to Big Sur. 

Kevin Drabinski/Caltrans

Borkes noted that even though the first storm of the fall is causing locals to have flashbacks of last winter’s storms, which, at points, resulted in the whole area hunkering down — neighbors looking out for neighbors, businesses helping other businesses and at times almost zero tourist traffic — hopes remain high heading into the holiday season.  
 
“If the weather holds out and the weekends are nice, people will still come down for the day even from SF, Monterey or Salinas,” she said. “Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s we’ll be busy.” 
 
This past spring, Rick Aldinger, general manager of the Big Sur River Inn and resident of Big Sur for more than three decades, said anytime the highway shuts down in the region, business will take a hit.  

“When the highway closes south of us … we can pretty much count on our business dropping 30%,” he told SFGATE, noting at the time business was off closer to 50%. 
 
Borkes agreed that any closure of the arterial road is critical, but also noted that the biggest factors this past winter also revolved around the storms affecting other areas in the region at the same time: “One of the big things that happened last year, to the north of us got hit pretty hard,” she said. “Salinas, Monterey, Santa Cruz — they had so much cleanup from all the destruction. Usually, you can count on last-minute reservations from the area, that really wasn’t happening last year.” 

This is an image of Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, Calif. The bridge was built in 1932 and has become one of the most iconic structures on the California coast.

This is an image of Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, Calif. The bridge was built in 1932 and has become one of the most iconic structures on the California coast.

Ian.CuiYi/Getty Images

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The reality of the road closure stretching into this winter and perhaps beyond has settled in, Borkes said. And while another wet winter, and the potential economic slowdown that comes with it, may be in the offing, she said for some who call Big Sur home, it’s also an opportunity to make alternative plans.  
 
“January and February will be slow regardless of the weather,” she concluded. “If I want to take a vacation and go to South America, that’s the time to do it.” 



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