Starting next May, Caltrans plans to begin a major realignment of Highway 1 in the Piedras Blancas area.
The agency plans to move nearly three miles of the highway some 500 feet inland to protect it from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. The project is expected to cost $57 million and take three years to complete.
“The goal of this project is to prevent coastal bluff erosion from causing closures, detours and otherwise adversely affecting the future operation of State Route 1 at this location for the next 100 years,” said Paul Martinez, Caltrans project manager.
Specifically, the realignment will begin just north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station and extend north to the Arroyo de la Cruz Bridge for a total of 2.8 miles. When it is complete, 73 acres will be added to Hearst San Simeon State Park and three and a half miles of new California Coastal Trail will be created.
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Planning for the project began in 2001, when the ocean began to encroach on parts of the highway. Coastal bluffs in this area recede an average of nearly five feet a year, Martinez said.
In one spot north of the Piedras Blancas Motel, an artificial rock embankment and concrete traffic barriers are the only things that separate the ocean from the highway. In spite of these barriers, waves break over them during periods of high swells, saturating the highway and creating traffic hazards.
The project was the subject of a study session Thursday by the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission. Permitting for the project is being done jointly among the county, Caltrans, State Parks Department and the state Coastal Commission so only one permit will be issued.
The Coastal Commission could issue that permit when it meets July 9-11 in Ventura. A summary of the Planning Commission’s discussion Thursday will be provided to the Coastal Commission and will be considered the county’s official input on the project.
Commissioner Ken Topping of Cambria praised the various agencies for bringing the complicated project to fruition. “This is a remarkable example of good cooperation between multiple agencies,” he said.
Standard for Highway 1 through the area, the new highway will have two 12-foot wide lanes and 8-foot shoulders. Because the road will be new, it will not have the roughness problems experienced on other parts of Highway 1 in the area that were chip-sealed for maintenance, Martinez said.
The project will have a variety of impacts on the area. Most importantly, two homes near the Piedras Blancas Motel sit in the realigned highway’s right-of-way and will be demolished, Martinez said.
The realignment will also disturb wetlands and California coastal prairie, a grassland plant community that is habitat for many rare and endangered species and is threatened by coastal development. To compensate for this, Caltrans will restore more than eight acres of wetland and 21 acres of coastal prairie. Most of the wetlands would be restored in the Arroyo de la Cruz area, which was historically farmed.
On the positive side, all of the land west of the realigned highway will become parkland. With the exception of four small parcels, all of the new parkland currently belongs to the Hearst Corp.
The company agreed to transfer the property to the state as part of the historic Hearst Ranch conservation deal in 2005. Under that deal, the company transferred 13 miles of coastline and 1,580 acres to the state in exchange for permission to develop parts of the adjacent Hearst Ranch.
State Parks will remove the existing highway and create a network of bluff-top trails, boardwalks and beach access points, said superintendent Nick Franco. When complete, the coastal trail will extend from the elephant seal rookery to Arroyo de la Cruz, a length of three and a half miles.
The improvements will significantly enhance the public’s ability to access the coast without degrading its splendid scenery, Franco said. “We want this beautiful part of the coastline to continue looking like this beautiful part of the coastline,” he said.