‘Hwy. 1 is your main street.’ State officials praise reopening of famous roadway

As about 200 people gathered on the Ragged Point Inn lawn Friday to celebrate the reopening two days earlier of the Big Sur stretch of Highway 1, Mother Nature accented the spectacular ocean view with blue skies, warm and bright sunshine and a cool fogbank hugging the distant horizon.

About 18 months ago, the weather wasn’t nearly as cooperative as relentless rain triggered the largest series of landslides the Mud Creek area had ever had, according to Caltrans officials, including state Director Laurie Berman, who was one of dozens of dignitaries who participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Area residents had told Berman the biggest Mud Creek slide on May 20, 2017, “felt and sounded like an earthquake.”

The statistics are daunting: More than 6 million cubic yards of material flowed downslope to destroy and bury about a quarter-mile of highway under about 250 feet of goo and rocks. The slide created 15 new acres of California land and 2,400 feet of new shoreline.

Ultimately, Caltrans and John Madonna Construction used ground radar, aerial lidar, GPS measurements, automated surveying equipment, extensometers and slope inclinometers to design a $54 million project that created a 2,000-foot-long, 40-foot-tall rock retaining wall at the shoreline, used engineered embankments, berms, catchments, culverts, netting and more to create a new roadway on top of the slide material.

Mud Creek Open019
The first cars drive along the newly opened section of Hwy. 1 across the Mud Creek Slide earlier this year. Highway 1 will likely be closed at both Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide as a storm with heavy rain approaches. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

On Friday, a steady stream of vehicles flowed in both directions on the highway. Just south of Hearst Castle, about 35 cars had pulled off so drivers and passengers could take snapshots of the large Hearst Ranch zebra herd in the field.

A little farther north, flaggers controlled alternating directions of traffic traveling in a single lane past a culvert-installing project.

Just beyond the elephant-seal-rookery vista points, runner Steve Kniffen of Cambria hotfooted it upcoast, heading for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Inn.

At Friday’s event, dignitaries congratulated each other, praised and thanked Caltrans and contractor John Madonna and looked forward to the increased access the public would have now to the internationally famous All-American Highway.

Various government representatives presented appreciation certificates to the state road agency and contractor.

But the high point for many was when Madonna called up his crew to honor them and others who worked so hard, so long — dawn to dusk — and wound up getting the job done two months ahead of what was already an ambitious estimated goal of opening in September.

The large audience gave the men a standing ovation and joined Madonna’s mother, Phyllis Madonna of Madonna Inn, in cheering for them.

While there had been tremendous pressure to reopen the highway stretch quickly — from area residents, travelers and businesses that serve them all — Berman noted that on Madonna’s work site, the emphasis was never to “hurry up and get it done. It was to get it done safely.”

For instance, several speakers commented that, even though repairs were underway on the smaller, earlier Mud Creek slides, Madonna’s job superintendent Augie Wilhite sensed trouble ahead in mid-May, 2017, and pulled back his crew. Then a huge chunk of the mountain collapsed.

Speakers said Wilhite’s instincts and actions prevented injuries and worse.

Mud Creek Open002
Vehicles drive around a corner on Highway 1 earlier this year near the newly opened section across the Mud Creek Slide. Work at the Paul’s Slide site farther north will bring overnight closures to the highway next week. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Among other ribbon-cutting speakers were: CHP commissioner Warren Stanley, State Sen. Bill Monning, State Assembly member Anna Caballero, Monterey County supervisor Mary Adams and Visit SLO Cal President Chuck Davison and California division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration Vince Mammano. San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson was the event’s emcee.

For community members, Berman said, “Highway 1 is your Main Street.”

As Davison said, “Highway 1 is what knits our communities together, the highway and the people.”

He also thanked area businesses and residents: “Without you, we simply have no community … So this is to celebrate all of you.”

A beaming John Madonna concluded, “I’ve never been around so many really happy people before.”

While the 100-mile stretch from Cambria to Carmel is finally open, Highway 1 work requiring occasional traffic controls is ongoing in various locations, including at Mud Creek.

And, as Monning added, the scenic highway’s future is in the full control of the force that’s always “in charge … Mother Nature.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune