Well-meaning Caltrans needs to fix Hwy. 1 mess

Chip sealing outrages some, and not for the first time

letters@thetribunenews.comJanuary 20, 2013 

We appreciate Caltrans’ willingness to try to fix the mess created on Highway 1 north of Cambria, where an unsatisfactory chip sealing project has left bicyclists and motorists furious.

They say the chip sealing — which is supposed to be a cost-effective way to keep paved roads in good shape — has instead resulted in a rock-strewn, uneven surface. Cyclists say riding is hazardous, and motorists are complaining that rocks are pitting windshields and damaging paint.

Among other steps, Caltrans is contracting with the UC Davis Pavement Research Center to find ways to smooth the roadway, especially for cyclists.

That’s good — but it would have been better if Caltrans had taken more care to get it right in the first place.

After all, this isn’t the first time Caltrans encountered this problem; a similar situation occurred as recently as 2010 in Lake County in Northern California. According to several news accounts, chip sealing on a couple of highways there led to an outcr y from cyclists and motorists.

Here’s an account from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat blog, Road Warrior:

“More than 1,000 residents signed petitions demanding Caltrans fix the roads, and local politicians added their pressure to agency officials. The chip sealing problem occurred when Caltrans, in a departure from its usual practice, used half-inch rock rather than the typical three-eighths-inch rock for the chip seal. That left the highways, in some ways, harder to drive on than before.”

The blog goes on to report that Caltrans ultimately agreed to repave the chip sealed sections of highway, at a cost of $17.6 million.

Here in San Luis Obispo County, it’s also been suggested that the size of the aggregate, or crushed rock, used on Highway 1 resulted in a dangerously uneven surface.

According to officials from San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, rocks used on the job vary from ahalf-inch to three-eighths inch in diameter, compared to the quarterinch to eighth-inch rock previously used.

Caltrans, however, said the materials used on Highway 1 were no different from what’s been used here in the past; an agency spokesman pointed out that similar aggregate was used to chip seal Highway 227, and there was no backlash after that job.

Caltrans also said it takes a while for rock chips to settle and as they do, the road will become smoother. In the meantime, the agency said it will do frequent sweeping to keep the road safe for cyclists — in addition to consulting with UC Davis for other possible solutions.

In an email, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said agency officials hope those solutions will prove useful not only for our area, but also for the entire state.

So do we.

Chip sealing is a cost-effective alternative to repaving, but it’s a false economy if it creates such hazardous conditions that regular users believe they have no choice but to avoid chip sealed roads for their own safety.

Again, we commend Caltrans for trying to get it right.

By all means, Caltrans should work with UC Davis to develop a more fail-safe formula — and this time, make sure the lessons are shared so that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for another expensive, after-the-fact fix.

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