Good roads. We take them for granted every day until something about them affects us personally.
Travelers expect to get around freely and comfortably. Voters expect taxpayer dollars to be spent wisely. All around the state, regional agencies, local jurisdictions and Caltrans take care of the public road system and aim to meet these expectations.
The recent controversy about a highway maintenance project north of Cambria sheds light on the challenges public agencies often face while balancing expectations.
On a 20-mile stretch of Highway 1 in northern San Luis Obispo County, Caltrans used a common and cost-effective road maintenance strategy called a chip seal to preserve the road. This is intended to extend the life of the pavement for more than a decade.
While successful to that end, the chip seal created a rougher ride for bicyclists.
The state highway system serves travelers of all modes, and I’m pleased to report that Caltrans has had a good relationship with the local cycling community for many years. In partnership with regional and local agencies, Caltrans has either supported or implemented numerous efforts to develop bike plans, add bike lanes, widen shoulders and use innovative solutions to promote safe bicycling throughout the county.
However, our chip-seal project on Highway 1 left a number of bicyclists very dissatisfied with the rougher pavement surface. When we began our search for solutions, we found that no definitive information about bicycle ride quality for roads was available. Until now, bicycle ride quality has not been identified as a measurable factor in resurfacing roads. We are happy to report this is changing.
Many suggestions to smooth the roadway surface have been put forward. Of course, completely repaving it would make things smoother but would also come with a $7 million to $8 million price tag on top of the $2 million already spent on the chip seal. We owe it to the taxpayers to look at a variety of more cost-effective options first.
Given that traffic wears down chip-sealed surfaces over time, attempting to accelerate this process with repeated rolling in recent weeks was an important test. This did not prove to be effective enough to use along the entire 20-mile section. We will soon be conducting several additional tests on Highway 198 near King City, which recently received the same chip seal, to determine whether other cost-effective smoothing techniques such as micro-surfacing, various sealing applications, steel rollers and smaller rock may work better. This additional testing is necessary not only to determine what is more effective but also to avoid unintentional damage to the road.
Maintaining a high-quality public road system is among many needs that our state struggles to meet for all its residents. We are continually trying to balance the growing demands on our aging transportation infrastructure as these significantly exceed the funds available to fix them. So we must make prudent use of taxpayer dollars.
Furthermore, the results of our efforts will be broad-reaching throughout California and beyond.
We are working for a resolution that is well thought out, serves the taxpayers who rightfully expect us to be prudent and satisfies all the travelers on this popular, scenic coastal highway.
We look forward to discussing our initial findings with the community in the coming months. Here’s to smoother roads ahead!
Tim Gubbins is the director of Caltrans District 5.