Wednesday morning, March 20, Caltrans held a press conference at the U.S. Forest Service’s Cranston Fire Station to discuss the road situation and the county’s efforts to promote our town so the broader public knows it is still able to visit the mile-high hamlet of Riverside County.

Some of the television press covering the March 20 Caltrans conference

            Only two days after the Mountain Disaster Preparedness community meeting on the status of local highways, Caltrans held its conference for regional press and several television news outlets. Besides an array of speakers — state and county officials — the group received a tour east on Highway 74 to the base of the Hill where the majority of repair and improvements end.

            New Caltrans District 8 Director Michael Beauchamp confirmed that repairing and opening Highway 74 is “… the focus of our efforts.” Ames Construction, the emergency contractor doing the repairs, will commence a 24/7 work schedule this weekend.

Mike Beauchamp, Caltrans District 8 director

            “Within four to six weeks, we’ll have escort access on 74. There will be three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. This will be in both directions and seven days per week,” Beauchamp said.

            “Within four to five months, I hope we can reopen 74 with flagging conditions,” he added.

             The Feb. 14 storm damage was major and his staff continues to find more damage. Then Beauchamp said, “District 8 has not seen this magnitude of damage. I know the impact on the community and businesses is great, but safety is the number one priority, for public, staff, Ames and emergency responders.”

            Due to the magnitude of the damage, complete repair work on highways 74 and 243 may extend one year, he lamented.

            The next speaker was Capt. Mike Alvarez of the California Highway Patrol San Gorgonio Office. Once the road opens, even with escorts, he asked the public to expect delays. But also to note and obey the new speed limits, 25 mph, until the road is completely open.

CHP Capt. Mike Alvarez (left), San Gorgonio office, 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington (center), and Andrew Smith (rear), U.S. Forest Service

            “I have ordered aggressive and enhanced enforcement of any driver in an unsafe manner,” he stressed.

           Caltrans’ Chief of Geotechnical Design for the south, Richard Rusnak, described the damage and repair efforts. Embankments eroded, rock falls, inadequate culverts and fracturing road surfaces have occurred and continue to occur. The vertical hillsides are being sloped and blind curves with limited views are being corrected.

Richard Rusnak, Caltrans geotechnical chief south office

            Soil, rocks and boulders come off the side of the road. These block a lane and the second lane is needed for the trucks and heavy equipment. Rusnak called this “the ballet of elephants.”

            Soil material from the Highway 74 hillside treatments is being screened and gradually moved first to the grinding station and then to Highway 243, especially to fill the gap at Bay Tree Spring.

            “Rock fall is a major hazard on [Highway] 74, and the danger has been made worse,” Rusnak said. “We are excavating material from the steep slopes and grinding the material to reconstruct along 74.”

Terri Kasinga, chief Public and Media Affairs, Caltrans District 8

            Following the discussion of the highway situation, Caltrans had several other speakers address the events in Idyllwild, the effect on businesses, and worker and county efforts to assist. Staff from local elected officials discussed how they could assist. See the accompanying story for more about the press conference.