Valley News -

By Tony Ault
Staff Writer 

Caltrans, Ames Construction work 12-hour shifts

Storm-damaged SR 74 and 243 may open to one-way traffic in 4 to 6 weeks

 

Last updated 3/30/2019 at 1:52am

Heavy rain that moved across the San Jacinto Mountains, March 21, didn't slow Ames Construction crews working to repair storm-damaged Highway 74 and to temporarily reopen the road to limited one-way traffic in four to six weeks.

Caltrans chief engineer Richard Rusnak spoke at a news conference and tour Wednesday, March 20, and described the Feb. 14 storm damage to the only highway leading from Valle Vista to Idyllwild as "catastrophic," calling it the "Valentine's Day Massacre" for the mountain community of Idyllwild.

The mountain community of Idyllwild was virtually cut off from outside motoring traffic for several days after the storm with both Highways 74 and 243 leading to the city from Banning because of total road washouts and rock slides along the way which were caused by the record rain. As of press time, the only way into the town was from Highway 371 from Aguanga and the open portion of Highway 74 from Palm Desert and the desert communities.

The news conference held at the U.S. Forest Service station in Cranston Wednesday was called not only to update the public on the road closures, but to encourage visitors to visit Idyllwild and Pine Cove. The towns offer fine dining, entertainment and other attractions for visitors, and the town and all of its businesses and restaurants are open despite the road closures.

Michael D, Beauchamp, the director of Caltrans District 8, appeared at a news conference and said, "We haven't seen this magnitude of damage in a long time. A few years back, we had Route 330 where we had three sections of roadway that washed out and Techs Wash on I-10 where the bridge washed out, but when you go to this site the magnitude of this damage is a lot greater."

He said that the impact to the Idyllwild businesses were severe, and Caltrans is working with Ames to provide temporary access but that safety for the general public, Ames, emergency responders and Caltrans workers was the foremost priority.

"We are focusing efforts on 74 to try and provide some temporary access and at the same time working on 243 to hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, to be able to get some temporary access between Idyllwild and Fulmor Lake," Beauchamp said.

The plan, according to Caltrans working with Ames, is in approximately four to six weeks to have motorists on SR 74 from Valle Vista be open to escorted traffic for three hours in the morning and three hours in the late afternoon to and from Mountain Center. Idyllwild can be accessed from Mountain Center to Idyllwild via open Highway 243. In the coming months, the contractor will prepare for full access to motorists on SR 74 with flagging conditions.

Work will continue simultaneously on SR 243 to provide access between Idyllwild and Lake Fulmor in the coming weeks.

Beauchamp and other Caltrans officials lauded Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, the Riverside County Sheriff and the California Highway Patrol for their help in the local highway problems.

Washington spoke at the news conference and said he wanted to focus on the residents and business community in Idyllwild who have suffered the greatest economic losses in the highway closures. He said he wanted to make sure that the residents of Riverside and visitors know that "Idyllwild is open for business."

Leslie Trainor, deputy director of the Riverside County Economic Development, joined with Washington saying, "The message we want to get across today is that Idyllwild is open for business. I was there on Monday. It's beautiful and peaceful, and the air is fresh. I recommend a day trip there."

She cited a number of restaurants and bakeries that offer food and other goodies and the work of many artisans on display in the village.

Andrew Smith, resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service's San Jacinto Forest District, announced that most of the Forest Service recreation facilities in and around Idyllwild, such as the Lake Hemet day-use campgrounds, the hiking trails in Mountain Center and Garner Valley along with those trails coming out of Idyllwild like Devil's Slide and the Earnie Maxwell trails are now open but he warned of rockfalls and downed trees. The other campgrounds in the San Jacinto Forest area are scheduled to open May 30.

Rusnack said contractor Ames Construction has been working on 40 locations on SR 74 and over 25 locations on SR 243 which have experienced some distress or damage that has resulted in unsafe driving conditions. He described how the steep slopes along SR74 were weakened by the storm causing rockfalls to completely block the highway while the water undermined other portions of the road, in one place completely washing away all but one lane.

He said the construction crews were now engaging in the road reconstruction work like a "ballet of elephants" with heavy and light equipment. The Ames crews, as seen by the touring media representatives, are excavating some of slopes, using that soil to fill the washed out sections and knocking down the remaining boulders that were threatening to fall on passing cars. The weakened roadway is being bolstered by geosynthetic reinforcement material, which will help stabilize the ground under the new base and on the slopes. Many culverts are also being replaced with pipes that can withstand more storm events.

He said the work to open the winding mountain highways into Idyllwild for tourists as like trying to "host the Oscars in a little theater with limited space, tight space and everything is moving as efficiently as possible," but, Rusnak said, "it's very challenging and Ames is doing an excellent job." Ames was chosen as the primary contractor for the highway construction work with an $8 million emergency contract approved by Riverside County and Caltrans.

For more information on detours and events in Idyllwild, visit http://www.loveidyllwild.com. Updates will be provided weekly by Caltrans on the progress of the emergency work on Twitter and Facebook. Residents can sign up for alerts at http://sv08data.dot,ca.gov/memos/memos.php?f=subscribe.

Tony Ault can be reached by email at [email protected]

 

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