An exclusive look at the new Hwy. 1 over Big Sur’s massive landslide

As Caltrans workers and private contractors work seven days a week to rebuild Highway 1 at Mud Creek, they’ve learned to watch for water coming at them from two directions: the surf below and the sky above.

There’s been plenty of progress on the work site, and Caltrans says the $40 million project should be complete by late summer. Resident engineer Rick Silva said it remains on schedule.

“But,” he said, “that could change depending on what kind of weather we get from here on out the rest of the year.”

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At the Mud Creek Slide site, crews in heavy machinery use access roads to truck down boulders that will armor the beach and bolster the shelves of earth that will support the new stretch of Highway 1 on the Big Sur coast. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Silva spoke just as the skies were clearing around midday Thursday, having dumped more than an inch of rain on the site in the previous 24 hours. More rain is in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday, and it remains the biggest question mark when it comes to completing the project on time.

“I remember one year, it started with no rain until the end of February, and then in March we got like 20 inches,” said Mark Amos, project superintendent for John Madonna Construction. “If we get that (amount of rain), it’s just going to change everything.”

Silva joked that “we’re all kind of amateur meteorologists out here,” watching the skies and paying close attention to forecasts from PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey.


Ocean erosion

But the weather hasn’t been the only challenge. The May 20 slide created a toe-shaped promontory when it sent more than a million tons of rock and dirt down the slope. Since then, however, the pounding surf has eaten away at the newly formed coastline.

A large boulder dubbed Pyramid Rock was part of the new peninsula this past summer; since then, however, the crashing waves have eaten away perhaps 100 feet of coastline, even as workers have worked quickly to create a breakwater of huge boulders. As a result, Pyramid Rock — now cracked into four pieces by the heavy surf — has become a miniature island, standing in water just off the coast.

All this happened, Silva said, more quickly than expected.

A radar station in the area that measured movement on the slide had to be relocated up the hillside to avoid being inundated. But the breakwater has largely stemmed the tide since then, even as large trucks arrive with more boulders to fortify it.

About 60 truckloads of rock a day are arriving from Cambria, San Luis Obispo and as far away as Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley.

Compressing the earth

Caltrans and its contractors are building the new highway over the top of the slide, which buried the old road under tons of dirt nine miles north of the Monterey County line.

Silva estimated the project is “probably a little over 50 percent done,” adding the ever-present caveat that “it all depends on what happens with the weather.” He said work is complete on the southern part of the “fill,” a term used to describe the compacted foundation of earthwork that will support the roadway.

The northern fill, he said, is 25 percent complete.

On Thursday, heavy compactors rumbled back and forth across the northern part of the slide, compressing the ground underneath massive wheels with spiked tires. Silva compared them to cleats on a football player’s shoes.

“We started at the bottom and built it up,” Silva said.

According to Amos, that involved using about 80,000 cubic yards of fill material just on the southern part of the project.

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The new road over the Mud Creek Slide will be just to the left of this access road once a shelf is built up to support it. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Laying a path

Northbound traffic on Highway 1 can venture as far as the Salmon Creek trailhead, on a hairpin turn a few miles north of Ragged Point.

At that juncture, Caltrans worker Arleen Guzzie stops motorists and kindly instructs them to go back the way they came.

As a result, travelers can’t get across the slide — but Caltrans workers and contractors on the project can. Since summer, they’ve carved out a one-lane dirt road that connects the segments of paved road at either end of slide. It’s roughly where the new highway will end up, but Silva said a lot of work remains to be done before paving can commence, especially on the north end.

There, the dirt road is perhaps 20 feet higher than the finished road will be. As a point of reference, a bridge from the old highway is visible, buried but peeking out from the hillside well below the temporary dirt road. Workers will have to lower that road and level it out before the highway can begin to assume its final shape, Silva said.

The north fill area will be roughly 236 feet above sea level — wooden stakes arranged in a line mark roughly where that will be — and about 80 feet higher than the southern section, where the fill is already complete.

Dirt from the southern part of the slide is being moved north to use as fill material, creating a bottom slope that acts like a buttress. Amos explained: “Instead of removing the slide by pushing it into the ocean, we’re buttressing the beach and working on this buttress to try to keep everything on top of it from sliding down.”

Next up: Thick, black drainage pipe, 54 inches in circumference, will be laid down underneath the new road bed to carry rainwater down from the top of the mountain. Work on that is scheduled to begin in about a week and be mostly complete a week after that.

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A worker guides an excavator to remove a newly arrived boulder from a truck on Thursday as crews continue to work to build a road over the Mud Creek Slide on Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Asphalt work is still months down the road. Susana Cruz, Caltrans District 5 public information officer, said: “Paving will more than likely take place weeks before work is completed.”

All hands on deck

There’s a lot of work still to do, and Caltrans is going full speed ahead, using an array of resources.

The Highway 1 rebuild involves five haul trucks, three loaders, five excavators, four dozers and, Silva said, “six or seven other random pieces of equipment.”

He estimated about 20 workers were out there every day.

“They took a couple of days off at Christmas and a couple of days around New Year, but they’ve been working pretty much seven days a week,” Silva said. “A couple of guys have 100 days in a row working.”

Guzzie, he said, actually wanted to work Christmas and had planned to have family members visit her at her post, but was told she had to take the day off. Another worker had taken just four days off since March.

Stability, for now

Although workers have faced challenges from the heavy surf, the good news is that the top of the slide hasn’t moved much. Tiny channels and gullies created by the latest storm were visible on the side of the mountain Thursday, above a line of shipping containers designed to keep more material from sliding down the hill. But Silva said there hasn’t been any major new activity so far.

“The mountain’s been pretty quiet lately,” Silva said. “It’s kind of slowed down, but we want to see what happens when it starts raining.”

So far, it hasn’t rained much.

“The weather is on our side,” Amos said. “We’ve been getting quite a bit accomplished because of the lack of rain.”

Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896, @sproauthor

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