Caltrans will have escort vehicles available

The Mountain Disaster Preparedness organized a community meeting to hear about the damages from the Valentine’s Day rainstorm and repairs to highways 74 and 243 Monday evening. More than 500 people attended the meeting, and many more watched on streaming video and afterwards, too. Photo by Steven King

Caltrans announced Monday evening that Highway 74 will be opened, with an escort pilot vehicle, for several hours each day within four to six weeks.

Terri Kasinga, chief of public and media affairs for Caltrans District 8, was one of the principal speakers Monday evening. In the background is Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington. Photo by Steven King

Several hundred people attended the community meeting, which the Mountain Disaster Preparedness group organized, while several hundred watched it as a live stream or later at home.

Several Caltrans speakers, including Richard Rusnak, Caltrans geotechnical engineer, and Amgad Benjamin, the resident engineer for this area, described the damage to highways 74 and 243. They also explained what is necessary to both repair the roadways and make them safer for the future.

The damage to these highways was catastrophic, Caltrans emphasized.

“A lot started to change last week because of the weather. We’re doing everything we can to get it done quickly,” said Terri Kasinga, Caltrans’ chief of public and media affairs for District 8.

Many Caltrans and other public officials came to the Mountain Disaster Preparedness community meeting Monday evening. Here (from left, sitting at table) are Capt. Mike Alvarez, California Highway Patrol; Terri Kasinga, Caltrans; Richard Rusnak, geotechnical engineer for Caltrans; and Assistant Chief Mark LaMont, Idyllwild Fire Department. In the back row (from left) are Jocelyn Whitfield, Caltrans pubic information officer; Shane Massoud, Caltrans public information officer; Amgad Benjamin, Caltrans engineer; and Terri Spinetti, Ames Construction project manager. The two gentlemen on the right are unknown.
Photo by Steven King

Just Monday, Caltrans had a conference call with the project staff and Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, who encouraged finding ways to alleviate the limited access while repairs continued. Then, Kasinga said that depending upon the weather and the work progress, within four to six weeks Caltrans would open Highway 74 for three hours each morning and three hours in the evening. 

The actual hours may change, but currently the plan is to have one-way escort pilot vehicles from 4 to 7 a.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m. This procedure will probably last six to eight weeks. During the hours between the openings, Caltrans’ contractor, Ames Construction, will be working on repairs. 

The opening will delay the final completion by a month or two, according to the engineers. Beginning Friday, Rusnak said Ames will be working 24 hours a day. The night work will be collecting material and equipment for the next day’s repairs.

There was no estimate of when Highway 243 might be opened, even for limited access, according to Kasinga. Rusnak added that he oversaw similar damage on Highway 330 in the San Bernardino Mountains and it took about five months.

Washington, who was at the community meeting, said, “My mantra is ‘don’t sacrifice safety’; people’s lives are at stake. And I got that loud and clear from Caltrans. In the conference call, we discussed options. And I know my community, I know you folks, you’re my family.”

During the time before any public traffic can travel Highway 74, Rusnak described the work as a “ballet of elephants.” There is very large equipment — trucks, dozers and excavators — that have to be moved daily. Regular traffic would not be conducive to finishing the repairs. Among the immediate projects will be cutting slopes and replacing several culverts to avoid future flooding.

“If we can move that schedule up, we will — that is our objective,” Rusnak affirmed.

The stonework at Bay Tree Springs remains essentially intact after the Valentine’s Day rain storm and flooding, which washed away Highway 243 passing the springs. Here, one sees the stonework and the sandbags diverting the stream flow in order to allow road repair to begin. Photo by JP Crumrine

California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Alvarez started the meeting with several videos, which he took with a drone. These showed the work on Highway 74, including the removal of a large rock or boulder.

Mike Feyder, MDP president, opened the session. He asked that all questions be written and would be answered after the speakers had finished discussing the road damage and repairs.

The initial question asked whether work was being done 24 hours per day. Rusnak replied that would start Friday.

Washington and Kasinga also announced that with help of the County Economic Development Agency, large message boards on interstates 10, 15 and 215 would be alerting drivers on how to get to Idyllwild. EDA also will have a website called