Hwy. 1 closures, Big Sur bridge failure taking a toll on tourism

On Wednesday, Caltrans engineers evaluate a large crack on the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur. The bridge has crumbled beyond repair, blocking passage on the north-south Highway 1 route for up to a year.
On Wednesday, Caltrans engineers evaluate a large crack on the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur. The bridge has crumbled beyond repair, blocking passage on the north-south Highway 1 route for up to a year. The Associated Press

A winter of closures to scenic Highway 1 compounded by a catastrophic bridge failure is hammering businesses in the Big Sur area and could damage tourism on the North Coast as well.

Mary Ann Carson, executive director of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, called the highway closure “devastating to our local economy,” and Cayucos chamber President Jeanette Simpson said, “Poor little Cayucos has really taken a hit lately.”

Meanwhile, Big Sur itself was sliced through the middle by a collapsing bridge that left the village on one side and the southern half of the community on the other.

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge south of Big Sur has been closed permanently to all traffic, both vehicle and pedestrian, having sustained so much damage that it will have to be replaced. Bridge supports anchored in rain-saturated earth have been sliding at their base and cracking, causing the span itself to crack, sag and buckle.

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An inspection of the bridge Tuesday determined that it had “moved several feet since Saturday, Feb. 11, and is damaged beyond repair,” Susana Cruz, Caltrans public information officer for District 5, wrote in an email Wednesday. “The bridge will not reopen to anyone.”

Cruz said in a phone interview Friday that survey teams “are drilling right now, and they’re going to be drilling for a couple of weeks to check the slope and check the span.” Meanwhile, she said, “they’re also working on designing the (new) bridge.”

Mudslides have closed other areas of the road. Cruz said that plow trucks work their way south from Carmel to the Pfeiffer bridge and north from Ragged Point on a daily basis, clearing away slides.

“Multiple areas have only one lane,” she said, adding that “a slide could still be active for 30 days, even though it’s dry weather.”

One particularly nasty active slide is Paul’s Slide, about 25 miles south of the Pfeiffer bridge. As a result of the slide, Cruz said, there’s “less than 11 feet of road instead of 16 feet — basically a one-lane area of road, and it’s on a curve.”

She said it would take about two weeks to clear the area, assuming new storms expected this weekend and more slides don’t worsen the situation.

Impact on business

The slides and road closure leave businesses on both sides of the bridge on what amounts to a dead-end road, with tourists from the Monterey Peninsula, the Bay Area and points north unable to reach San Luis Obispo County without a significant detour via Highway 101.

Brooke Burnham of Visit SLO CAL said the county’s tourism industry is waiting to see the extent of the closure’s effects.

“For economic impact, it is really too early to tell, with the full closure being just days old,” Burnham wrote. “Reporting out on such numbers for this winter will be nearly impossible, as there are many additional factors contributing to this season’s travel figures.”

Others, however, were already seeing a fallout.

Cavalier Resorts President Mike Hanchett, who also heads the San Simeon Chamber of Commerce and the community’s tourism board, said road closures historically cut business there by 25 percent. Part of the problem this year, he added, is that “it’s been pouring.” Now that the “sun is out, I think traffic will start up again. I think we should have a good spring break/Easter break.”

Also in San Simeon, Manta Rey Restaurant owner Miguel De Alba said business had dropped about 10 percent year over year, but initial fears that the closure might force him to shut his doors hadn’t materialized.

“I think people are still coming up to (Hearst Castle), although maybe not as many,” he said. “You can see the difference on the road, though — not as many people coming through.”

Simpson, the Cayucos chamber president, said the downturn started during the summer, when the Chimney and Soberanes fires scorched northern San Luis Obispo County and southern Monterey County, scaring away some tourists.

“Between the fires and the slides, it’s hurt us quite a bit,” said Simpson, who owns Full Moon Wine Bar and Bistro.

She said she’d seen a drop in business of at least 40 percent as a result of the two events.

“People didn’t come up the highway (during the fires) because they thought it was dangerous,” she said. “Then the rains started, and the slides started. So it’s kind of been nonstop.”

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If anything, she said, the slides have hurt business even more than the fires did, and the fact that the community’s Veterans Memorial Lions Hall has been closed because of structural damage has compounded the situation.

Carson of the Cambria chamber said the closure “is most definitely impacting business in Cambria and San Simeon.”

“Big Sur is a destination for many travelers, and as word has spread that it is closed, I think tourists are changing their plans and bypassing Cambria and San Simeon altogether,” she said. “So the longer this goes on, the worse the negative impact on all businesses, lodging, restaurants and retail will be.”

Cambria chamber President Mel McColloch wrote to state Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, D-Carmel, indicating that businesses “will be suffering beyond belief” as a result of the closure and urging lawmakers to provide Caltrans with support to reopen the highway as quickly as possible: “Please be sure that Caltrans has the money available, and that they are not held up by any environmental regulations during this time of severe emergency.”

Big Sur cut in half

Farther north, the situation was more dire.

Kirk Gaffil’s business, Nepenthe Restaurant, is in the isolated area in southern Big Sur — and separated from the main village area by the failed bridge. Gaffil, general manager of Nepenthe and president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, said his business was isolated by similar highway closures north and south of the area in 1983-84 and again in 1998.

In the earlier instance, the highway was closed for 13 months because of a huge mudslide that buried more than a quarter-mile of road. Four hundred people lost their jobs, and the tourist industry lost an estimated $34 million, according to a 1984 New York Times article.

In neither of those cases, though, did the closures cut through the heart of Big Sur. That’s what happened this time.

“What’s really different about this one is that the business community has been cut in half because the Big Sur Village is north of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge,” he said.

That creates an additional challenge in terms of staffing, he explained, because “most of my employees live and commute from north of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, and this is true of most of the vendors south of the bridge.”

In all, Gaffil said, 90 or 95 of his 115 employees live outside of the enclave that’s currently cut off from the rest of the state.

“We can neither get guests nor employees other than those who live here in the enclave, or supplies,” he said, citing an urgent shortage of propane and diesel fuel.

He said he’s hoping to get the Air National Guard to airlift those fuel supplies in.

The good news, he said, is that January and February are typically Nepenthe’s slowest months of the year, accounting for about 15 percent of its annual income.

“But then when you get into March and April, you’re getting into spring break, which is pretty similar to what summer used to be,” Gaffil said. “If we are closed into March or April, we might be looking at closer to 40 percent of our annualized revenue” being lost.

All the other businesses in the area are also closed, he said, naming the Big Sur Deli, Big Sur Taphouse, Shell station, Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn, Coast Gallery and Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.

Despite the closure, however, which has left his business with “zero revenue” and continued expenses, such as maintenance and security, Gaffil said he’s optimistic about the long term.

“We expect, based on recent years following closures, whether it be from fires or whatever, our bounce-back will be really solid,” he said.

At least some businesses north of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge remained open to locals Friday, said Stan Russell, executive director of the Big Sur chamber, with electricity having been restored Thursday night and phone service back up Friday. But the highway remained closed to through traffic from Big Sur north to Palo Colorado, about 10 miles south of Carmel.

Big Sur River Inn posted an announcement on its Facebook page that said it was open to “locals only,” which was natural because only locals could get there.

“If you can get off your respective mountain safely, come in and swap stories, we miss you all,” an announcement posted there Thursday said.

Other sites affected

Esalen Institute, a retreat in Slates Hot Springs between Lucia and Big Sur, has also closed. Cruz said about 80 guests were being taken out one vehicle at a time in vans, SUVs and helicopters early Friday afternoon. It was a one-way trip, she said, and guests wouldn’t be allowed to go out and return.

The nearby New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery open to visitors, posted an announcement Wednesday on its Facebook page that “because of highways blocked by slides and damaged bridges, the monks and staff are cut off from normal deliveries and supplies.”

“The winter damage is turning out to be the single biggest challenge to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in its 59-year history. … We are stranded, between broken bridges and broken highways. Our phones do not work. We have limited fuel and even more limited funds. But we are not broken in spirit; we refuse to leave, to give in to these storms, while there is still a chance to remain and repair damages.”

Highway 1 isn’t the only road in the area to have sustained damage. Photos posted by BigSurKate (Kate Novoa) on her blog Tuesday showed Clear Ridge Road, which connects Big Sur with Pfeiffer Beach to the southwest, to be impassible — its asphalt having cracked and buckled.

Hearst Castle was affected more directly by the storms. The popular tourist attraction closed Feb. 15 and again Feb. 19 in response to concerns about heavy rain and high winds, said Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes the Castle.

At Ragged Point Inn, near the southern end of the closure, owner Jim Ramey said the situation “has a financial effect,” although it’s lessened by the fact that the resort has become more of a destination in recent years. Still, he said, “it certainly profoundly affects the business, and profoundly affects a lot of workers who work less hours, or there are less hours to give them.”

Ramey said the business hadn’t sustained any actual damage from the storm, adding that the closure “is affecting certain parts of the business more than others. The motel is still doing pretty well.”

On the other hand, he said, businesses such as the gas station and gift shop “really feed off the customers coming through the area.

The future

Business owners want Caltrans to act quickly to replace Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge.

Carson said the Cambria chamber has encouraged Caltrans to build a detour while a new bridge is being constructed, and Hanchett suggested that Caltrans might be able to “put in a one-lane detour or a temporary bridge while they build a new one.”

Cruz, however, said such a detour would be problematic: “We can’t put a bridge on top of that bridge, because what caused the bridge to fracture was vertical and horizontal movement in the earth underneath.”

She said findings from the drilling investigation that began Thursday are expected March 17, and decisions on how to proceed will be made from there. She had no estimate on how much a replacement bridge might cost. It could take from six months to a year to replace the span, Caltrans has estimated.

In a news release Friday, Cruz cited “extreme safety concerns” in asking that no one go within 100 feet of the bridge.

Meanwhile, Burnham said the focus of Visit SLO CAL “is to educate travel agents, tour operators and consumers on easy alternate routes” to the area and to inspire continued demand for what the county has to offer, including through a $1 million advertising campaign launched in January.

Kathe Tanner contributed reporting for this story.

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