sCaltrans held a press conference Wednesday, March 20 to describe the damage and reapairs to Highway 74. Before the actual presentation began speakers were talking among themselves and with some of the media. Here (from right) Caltrans District 8 Director Michael Beauchamp, Patrick Keplinger, representing Representative Dr. Raul Ruiz, Andrew Smith (rear), U.S. Forest Service, San Jacinto Ranger District, Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, and Capt. Mike Alvarez, California Highway Patrol. Photo by JP Crumrine

The Valentine’s Day torrential rainstorm on Feb. 14, caused the closure of Highway 74 from Hemet to the west and Highway 243 from Banning to the south.

Based on past closures, Hill residents were expecting the closures to last a week or more. However, the damage was much more extensive. The volume of water was massive. Highway 243 split in two different locations. The worst was at Bay Tree Spring, where the road disappeared and a crevice nearly 100 feet deep appeared.

Highway 74 was severed near mile post 51. That damage extended several hundred feet in length and probably 30 to 50 feet in depth.

Supervisor Chuck Washington during Wednesday’s press conference.
Photo by JP Crumrine

Erosion along the edges of the highways, and sometimes extending beneath the surface to near the road’s middle, occurred in multiple places. And Highway 74 was pummeled with rock and boulders, and just as many hovered on the hillside awaiting a small quake, heavy truck vibration or more erosion to shake them loose and roll on to the highway, too.

Estimates of road closures varied during the ensuing weeks, but on March 14, Caltrans issued an estimate that it required four months before Highway 74 could open.

This was the expectation of local residents who attended the March 18 community meeting with Caltrans and California Highway Patrol officials, which the Mountain Disaster Preparedness group organized.

However, those in attendance and those who watched online came away with much better news. Caltrans, in cooperation with its contractor, Ames Construction, would open Highway 74 twice a day for three hours in both directions within four to six weeks.

Some were discouraged that road repair and restoration would not be fully completed within that period, but most were relieved that some access to the Hemet area would be available, especially for the high school students who were taking a bus ride that required an extra hour in both directions.

After Terri Kasinga, Caltrans’ chief of public and media affairs for its District 8, described the known damage and noted that new and more damage was discovered and identified almost daily, she then gave the audience the news about the accelerated, but limited, Highway 74 opening.

Applause instantly followed, and Kasinga was quick to explain that this decision had only been made about an hour before the session began. It was instigated at the urging of Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, who represents the Hill.

“We had a conference call with Chuck Washington to discuss our plans, and he said the community wouldn’t accept it,” Kasinga said. “He told us, ‘You have to have the highway open morning and afternoon. What can you do?’”

After hearing Washington’s plea and explanation, Caltrans engineers and Ames developed this alternative. It will extend complete construction, but it will provide access to the west months sooner.

“Washington has worked with our directors and knows how to stay engaged,” Kasinga said later. “He’s very proactive and easy to work with. He’s a great partner and official.”

“One of the things I’ve learned about negotiations is you get more with collaboration than frightening,” Washington said. “I understand our community history and I told them I know how Idyllwild will react. I wanted to build on the relationship I had already established with Caltrans. I’ve known Terri for three or four years.”

About two weeks before the meeting, Caltrans gave Washington and some other officials a tour of the highways. He understood and agreed with the Caltrans priority of public safety now and in the future. 

“This was not a one-week nor one-month project,” he learned. “I saw the cracks, the road giving way and a huge rock rolled in front of our car. “

But Washington urged and challenged Caltrans to find another option that could bring some relief to Hill residents sooner than the middle of summer.

“There are trade-offs to make opportunities for the residents to go up and down the Hill, he told Caltrans,” Washington said.

His attention and time to this problem came from his understanding and commitment to the community, which is not a recent development, Kasinga noted.

She and Caltrans have worked with Washington for several years on other road conditions within his district and the county. Specifically, she mentioned the efforts of the county and Caltrans on behalf of the Idyllwild Snow Group.

“He’s is very interested in his communities. We have been attending his yearly snow meetings and trying to improve the signage.”

When asked if his office had gotten many calls or visitors complaining about the situation, he replied “Not many.”

 When asked if his office had gotten many calls or visitors complaining about the situation, he replied “Not many.”

In fact, many of the communications were in the vein of describing the damage and devastation rather than gaining access, he added.

His staff also has worked hours with the county’s Economic Development Agency to secure more help. The county now has a website, touridyllwild.com, which is titled, “Home of Adventure, Music, Art & Harmony.” It’s intent is to assure the public off the Hill to know that Idyllwild is not landlocked. Access, even if limited, is available and there is much to do and be entertained here.

There is also “LoveIdyllwild” on Twitter.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Three facts remain. This road is being used by a selected group of people. The contractor doesn’t want to deal with a pilot car and this contractor did not operate 24 hours a day. Likely his night hours are minimally used. This is garbage! But the sheep just bleat. My monthly commute bill just went up by $700 per month.

  2. Unexpected accelerated brand new vehicle depreciation, an additional 130 miles per day added to the commute, 3 hours per day added to the commute, loss of 3 hours per day of additional wages ( in my line of employment that’s home hospital pay and other duty pay. Weekend assignments are no longer a viable option for my wife) and if a mitigation is used a hotel room added to this bill. Actual revenue loss is more than $700 per month with potential revenue loss far greater. I don’t like it it when the on-site engineer mis represents the nature of the repair just because Washington’s office wants to look like the good times guy. I especially don’t like it when the engineer is weak at planning, and won’t go full force 24 hours a day because the project is under funded. It really upset me when a smoke and mirrors game was played by the politicians knowing a usable road surface is in place.

    • TY for the more detailed explanation. Does sound rough and I always admire people that choose to live up here while driving off the hill for work.

      As a licensed civil engineering in the state of California (I don’t work for or with CalTrans), I spoke with their lead GeoTec (Richard) at length after the meeting and I don’t see anything unusual or “slow go” with their reconstruction plan.

      As a practical matter there simply isn’t enough room to build bypasses where they can work while public traffic flows by. They could barely manage it after the fires when the construction zone was just a few hundred feet. I can’t speak to thier funding, but while I guess they could work 24 hour shifts, a lot of that slope work isn’t safe or practical to do at night in those close quarters. It’s scary enough for dozer drivers to be benching tall unstable slopes by daylight.

      As a matter of timeline, rebuilding slopes take a LOT of time because there are really physical limits to re-compacting soil to be stable enough not to fail again. You can’t just throw 200 feet of dirt down and hope it stays put. You put down one foot of dirt, and then run equipment over, then add another foot… and repeat. Things will still settle, which takes time. I’ll You also over excavate back into the existing ground to put in geogrid. I’ll leave out managing moisture levels in the dirt for optimal compaction. Regardless, rebuilding big slopes takes a lot of time.

      When I saw the failure on 243 my first though was “that’s a 2 month repair”. 74 I didn’t think was going to be as bad, but the subsequent photos of the actual slope failures, is certainly a 2+ month job.

  3. It’s been two months now. The planners keep extending the opening date. Much of the work is preventative not emergency. The culverts have been decaying over decades. To now make commutes outrageous because the contractor doesn’t want the inconvenience is unacceptable. The fact is evening/ night operations don’t use the road. No visible additional sheriff or highway patrol have been added to the early morning commutes making these extended commutes deadly.

  4. They’re tryin to make it look like they’re doing everything possible. Not true. It’s always been a money and staffing thing. The early morning commute starts at 3:00am. School busses are moving at 4:00am yet highway patrol doesn’t staff patrol units on the roads until 6:00 am. That means the crazy drivers get free reign to terrorize the rest of us. If and when they do staff it won’t nearly be enough to meet good supervision standards. Open hwy 74 with a pilot car at 4:00 am. They’re not scaling rocks at that time. Enough if this game of smoke and mirrors.

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