Caltrans to Reopen Hwy 1 by Summer

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 11, 2021

Caltrans plans to fill in the landslide at Rat Creek on Hwy 1, in a project that promises to fully reopen the scenic highway to through traffic sometime by early summer.

The late-January storm that hit the Big Sur area with up to 12 inches of rain over 3-days caused over 60 landslides along Hwy 1 through the area of the Dolan Fire that burn over 100,000 acres in Summer 2020. 

The largest of the slides was at Rat Creek where 150-feet of roadway was obliterated and washed down to the sea. 

The resultant chasm in the roadway was feared to be leading to another prolonged closure of the highway, as happened in 2017, when the Mud Creek and Paul’s Slides had the highway close for over a year.

But after analyzing the damage, the agency has come up with a plan of attack.

“After assessing the damage, removing debris and making minor repairs,” spokesman Kevin Drabinski said in a Feb. 25 news release, “Caltrans will reconnect the roadway at Rat Creek with an enhanced fill option. Caltrans will fill the canyon with dirt in a large V-shape and construct a new road on top of the fill.” Work on the fix was to begin March 1, he added.

Caltrans Director, Toks Omishakin, said, “Caltrans crews have been onsite since this highway section washed out in the recent storms to assess the damage, and we’re pleased to announce emergency construction begins next week to repair and reconnect the highway.

“Highway 1 is an iconic roadway that connects travelers with small businesses on the Central Coast, and we’re focused on restoring travel on this section by early summer.”

The fix will also replace the main drainage system of Rat Creek, installing an “oversized main culvert and smaller overflow culverts closer to the highway grade.”

That will “increase the capacity of the drainage system, add redundancies designed to withstand future debris flows and enhance the resiliency and sustainability of the highway against rising sea level and coastal erosion,” Drabinski said.

The estimated cost of the repairs stands at $11.5 million, according to Caltrans. That includes $5 million in emergency repairs north of Rat Creek. 

The contractor for the repair job is Papich Const. of Arroyo Grande.

Currently, some 5 miles of the highway is closed, with the southern turnaround at the Big Creek Vista Point at Post Marker 27.3. 

The northern turnaround is 2 miles north of Rat Creek at the Lime Creek Bridge at PM 32.1.

The repair will bring in tens of thousands of cubic yards of materials, with work continuing 7-days a week during daylight hours. As the days lengthen, longer shifts could be possible. Rain could of course cause delays and heavy rain could spell further disaster through the burn scar area.

Drabinski added, “All businesses and activities south of Rat Creek in communities including Lucia, Gorda, Treebones, Ragged Point, San Simeon and Cambria will continue to remain accessible from the south on Highway 1. 

“Similarly, the entire stretch of Highway 1 north of the closure, from Monterey and Carmel to the businesses and recreational facilities of the greater Big Sur Area will be open for business and unaffected by the closure. Only through traffic on Highway 1 is affected by the washout at Rat Creek.”

In a normal year, up to 5 million people annually travel Hwy 1 through Big Sur, with vacationers and tour buses fueling tourism in Monterey and SLO Counties. 

The 2017 Mud Creek Slide, the largest in California history, had a severe negative affect on tourism and in turn the economies of North Coast communities.

But with the coronavirus pandemic, traffic on Hwy 1 has not been normal since April 2020.

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