Rough riding on Highway 1 rankles North Coast

Motels, businesses say 'unsafe’ surface is driving tourists away; Caltrans continues to conduct studies of the recent paving job

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comMarch 11, 2013 

The ragged surface of Highway 1 north of Cambria is already harming businesses and tourism, and could do serious financial damage if Caltrans doesn’t fix it by June 1, local businesses and government leaders said.

Motel owners and managers have contacted Caltrans about cancellations because of “the dangerous and unsafe condition of Highway 1,” Cambria Chamber of Commerce President Mel McColloch told the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments last week. SLOCOG is a regional transit planning agency. In addition, McColloch said, antique car owners, bicyclists and others are threatening to stay away if the pavement is not repaired.

Stacie Jacob, executive director of Visit San Luis Obispo County, told The Tribune on Thursday that organizers of at least one bicycle get together — the Country Coast Classic — have postponed their event indefinitely, and those backing another — the Best Buddies ride — are worried about the road. The intensified concentration on the tourist economy marks a shift away from the focus on bicyclists, who have been complaining for months about the road.

“Everyone thought it was just about bikes,” said Ron DeCarli of SLOCOG. “It’s getting much bigger than that.”

Caltrans triggered the problem when last year it repaved a 25-mile stretch of Highway 1 from north of Cambria to the Monterey County line.

Caltrans used larger-than-normal crushed rock aggregate in the chip seal repaving. The aggregate used for the job is twice the size of the rock used before — three-eighths to a half-inch in diameter, compared with one-eighth to a quarter-inch in diameter.

The larger aggregate is less expensive.

Motorists, bicyclists and others say the rock has been spread into bike lanes, rendering them virtually unusable. It also has damaged motor vehicles, dinging windshields and paint.

Bicyclists also complain that a bike and rider together don’t have the same weight as a car or truck, so the bike traffic doesn’t press the rocks as hard or as deeply into the emulsion, which would help smooth out the surface.

In addition, they note, some areas have sharp drop-offs caused by the added layer of pavement, making it that much higher than the grade of the adjacent ground.

County leaders for months have been trying to get Caltrans to fix the problem. But Caltrans’ response has been “frustrating in its pace,” said county Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents the North Coast.

Gibson said he wants Caltrans and the state to be more aggressive. He has been in touch with state Sen. Bill Monning, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, and the office of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who rides his bicycle on the Central Coast.

Caltrans has not been idle. In a Feb. 14 letter to SLOCOG Chairman Frank Mecham, Caltrans’ District 5 Director Tim Gubbins noted that the agency is conducting studies of the problem.

“Over the next few months, researchers will conduct measurement and testing, and recommendations for further actions will be made for the current situation as well as the statewide pavement program,” Gubbins wrote.

But many worry that vague timetable could cause local merchants to lose money during the tourist season.

“Cambria’s businesses are in real jeopardy of losing considerable income this spring, summer and fall.” McColloch wrote. “We cannot wait for lengthy studies.”

SLOCOG has no formal governmental authority over Caltrans, but it can lobby the state and is doing so. Mecham said last week that he would contact the governor, and SLOCOG has scheduled a formal discussion on the issue for its April 3 meeting.

Tribune staff writer Kathe Tanner contributed to this report.

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