Caltrans and other public officials met with the Idyllwild community Thursday night, June 13. Although repair of Highway 74 will continue for months, road officials are hoping that it can be opened 24 hours a day with flagging control by Labor Day.

Mountain Disaster Preparedness sponsored a community meeting with Caltrans. Photo by Steven King

            Until then, at the suggestion of 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, Caltrans announced that the weekend hours (with escorts) would be expanded to 4 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday. This began this past weekend.

            The longer hours will also be available during the Fourth of July holiday period. For the four days, from Thursday, July 4, through Sunday, July 7, Highway 74 will be open to traffic, with escorts, from 4 a.m. to midnight, 20 hours each day.

            No announcement was made on the progress on Highway 243. That will take much longer.

            After Mike Feyder, president of the Mountain Disaster Preparedness Group, who sponsored the meeting, introduced the public officials, the presentations began with California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Alvarez showing a video of the reconstruction’s progress.

            “This video shows a lot has been done. There’s great progress thanks to Ames [Construction, the contractor] and Caltrans,” he said.

            The Caltrans showed a second video of the work being done on both state routes.

Terri Kasinga, Caltrans Chief of public and media affairs. Photo by Steven King

            These roadways were initially closed on Feb. 14. The next day an emergency contract was initiated between Caltrans and Ames Construction. They have been working hard to restore these corridors, but residents’ frustration has built during the nearly four months of waiting.

            Caltrans staff explained that the work has been more than estimated and is taking longer for several reasons. First the initial estimate of locations that needed repair, either new culverts or restoring embankments, was 43. Since February, the number of repair sites has grown to nearly 100, according to Shane Massoud, a Caltrans public information officer.

            Ames is continuing to repair the slopes along the roads, install new and larger culverts, repair erosion under the highways and on the embankments below t he road levels.

            Not only was the initial number of damaged sites underestimated, but the continuing inclement weather exacerbated the work done and created new problems, he added. And Caltrans engineer Amgard Benjamin said the heavy fog during May delayed the capability to haul dirt to the repair sites.

            “May was four times as wet as any average May,” said Alex Tardy of the National Weather Service.

            After Caltrans staff described the situation and progress to date, Supervisor Washington came forward. He described the county’s efforts to ensure that the public knows that access to Idyllwild is available.

            Caltrans is also working with an outdoor advertising firm to get more digital billboards along Interstate 15 to remind motorists about Idyllwild.

            “We all love Idyllwild and want to see opportunity to come up here,” he said. “They are literally re-building the highway in both directions.”

3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington. Photo by Steven King

            He stressed that county and state officials understand that the limited access affects the local businesses and their staff. He then asked if the attendees would prefer the hours for access (even with an escort car) be expanded or simply focus on road construction as quickly as possible.

            The consequence of increasing the access hours would mean that the road repair would take longer. Caltrans estimated extra time would likely be one month, depending upon weather this summer, especially the number and intensity of monsoons.

            While some in the audience urged that the emphasis be on completion, the majority favored longer access hours and were happy to hear Caltrans’ and Ames’ willingness to do this.

The hands raised for longer weekend access hours. Photo by Steven King

            After Labor Day, Terri Kasinga, the Caltrans chief of public and media affairs, said that the access on Highway 74 would likely be expanded to 24 hours per day with flagging and not slowed by escorts. In order to achieve this goal, Caltrans will have to ensure that guardrails have been replaced and signage, such as speed limits, installed.

            “There are no other environmental issues in the way of [work on Hwy.] 74. We want to restore the road and get you on it as quickly as possible,” she said.

            The emergency contract with Ames was initially for $8 million. Since February it has grown to $30 million, of which about half has already been expended, according to Caltrans.

            While progress is being made to restore Highway 243, officials were not able to estimate any specific dates. Caltrans Engineer Richard Resnak explained this road needs to be built to better standards.

            A solid base should be a few inches below the road surface. His equipment can penetrate to a three-foot depth. “We’re rebuilding to better standards and it will benefit the community for the long run. What we fix won’t fail,” he stated.

            The presentations ended with comments from Riverside Sheriff’s Capt. Leonard Purvis of the Hemet Station and CHP Capt. Mike Alvarez.

            The first question from the audience was whether the modified road slopes would be revegetated. And the answer was “Yes,” but nature will take some time.

            One person asked if it were possible to drive to Lake Fulmor, park their car and walk to the other side of the road repair to be picked up and driven to Banning or Beaumont. All replied “No!”

            Attendance was estimated to be nearly 400 people, slightly less than the March meeting. Some attributed the lower attendance to better awareness that the session was being broadcast and the summer weather.

Work on reconstructing Highway 243 at Bay Tree Springs continues to progress. This photo shows how much of the base has been restored since the February washout, which destroyed the road to the trees at the bottom left of the photo.
Photo by JP Crumrine
Where Highway 243 passed Bay Tree Springs was totally washed away. Here, the restoration is nearing the original road level.
Photo by JP Crumrine

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