Thursday, August 20, 1998
The rains are over, the repairs are almost completed and the tourists are back. Still, the road to Big Sur continues to be studded with delays and frustration. And there is more to come.
After six months, four landslides, 25,000 truckloads of soil and rock, and $6.5 million to cut away 60 feet of unstable hillside to create a new roadway, reconstruction of Highway 1 at Hurricane Point is a week away from final clean-up and completion. Heavy rains caused the first landslide on Feb. 2, taking down half the southbound lane. Continuing rain took out the remainder of the roadway a week later, forcing 100 feet of highway 30 feet downward. The rains didn''t let up, causing more slides and more destruction.
Even after reconstruction started, the earth kept slipping. "As moisture goes in, slip planes accelerate movement. Rain can accelerate this," says Val Houdyshell, public information officer for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). "Even though the rain has stopped, moisture in the soil is still affecting slip areas. We''re at the mercy of Mother Nature and the geology of the area. The likelihood (of slipping) is less and less as the soil dries out."
To reconstruct Highway 1, geologists went to work to locate the source of slippage. Enough soil had to be removed to stabilize the side of the mountain. To create a new roadbed, explains Houdyshell, Caltrans cut 130 feet down and 60 feet into the slope, removing 200,000 cubic yards of material. During this period, the rains continued, making for very hazardous work--work Houdyshell calls "a real heroic effort."
The cut alone took seven weeks and a round-the-clock hauling operation. Because of environmental concerns in the area, all the dirt had to be hauled out.
And Hurricane Point was only one of 40 major damage sites along the 70-mile stretch of Highway 1, from Carmel to just beyond the southern Monterey County boundary. The total price tag of repairs thus far? A whopping $32 million.
Theoretically, all that reconstruction is designed to permanently shore up the roadway, but what happens in another year of El Ni¤o rains? "There are no guarantees," says Houdyshell. "This is true of Highway 1 along the entire coast of California."
But even as repairs at Hurricane Point are wrapped up, travel on the reopened Highway 1 to Big Sur continues to be slow. Now seismic retrofits to four bridges have narrowed traffic to one lane, causing slowdowns in both directions of travel between Carmel and Big Sur. The bridges are at Malpaso Creek, Rocky Creek, Granite Creek and Bixby Creek. In addition, the bridge at Big Creek just south of Big Sur is also being retrofitted.
The work, which will take at least a year to complete, is part of a legislatively mandated statewide seismic program, explains Houdyshell. These concrete arch bridges are the last to be retrofitted, delaying their completion beyond the December 1998 legislative deadline.
"The work is exactly on schedule. Extra time was spent with these bridges because we did take special care in the design to have the least impact on the visual quality of these historic bridges," says Houdyshell. Although each retrofit has a different strategy, depending on the bridge, all involve strengthening the columns, abutments and bridge deck.
"It''s really difficult to retrofit bridges," says Houdyshell. "There is a lot of work on the substructure of bridges that people don''t see, a lot of equipment and (the need) to protect workers." Highway 1, she adds, is always difficult to work on because "the road is so narrow, with a steep drop-off to the ocean on one side and steep hillside on the other."
To get the construction done, only one lane is open at a time with signalized control around the clock. According to Houdyshell, the signals are monitored closely and the timing adjusted as needed to minimize delays.
Those delays are causing some consternation among Big Sur business owners and tourists. "We''re still getting plenty of tourists and tour buses, but people are frustrated by the lights and the confusion on the road and all the workers," says Ondine Tavolara, manager of Coast Gallery, "the last business" at the south end of Big Sur. She adds that many out-of-state visitors had heard about all the rain last spring but were not fully aware of what they were coming to. "We''re probably not as busy as we could be," says Tavolara, "but sales are doing as well as last summer."
Laura Moran, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and manager of Deetjen''s Big Sur Inn, knows "it''s work they have to do, but it''s definitely impacting business. Guests are frustrated by the time they get through it."
Still, adds Moran, the guests are coming. "Our business is off a small percentage, everyone''s business is off. I don''t know if it''s the storm damage and bad publicity in the spring when people make vacation plans or the roadwork now or a combination. It''s not off enough to worry about."
For some tourists, the wait on the road isn''t enough to worry about, either. "It''s frustrating," say Jon and Sandy Allen of Gainesville, Fla., frequent visitors to Carmel. "There''s nothing to do but wait, but it isn''t that long."
Houdyshell acknowledges there have been complaints from tourists and businesses. Working on Highway 1, however, is "a constant thing and avoiding any impacts at all is impossible." She says the isolation suffered by Big Sur for several months last winter is a good example of why the bridges need to be strengthened to protect them from catastrophic earthquakes. "Last winter we could all see what happens when you don''t have use of a roadway. It caused the isolation of Big Sur for several months."
And, says Houdyshell, last week''s earthquake near San Juan Bautista demonstrated the difference retrofitting bridges can make. Inspections following the quake, says Houdyshell, showed that "there was no damage to bridges that had been retrofitted, not even any minor cracking, even when movement was evident. The retrofit program is important and it works."