People anxious for the estimated late-September opening of the new Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge now know what the new structure on Highway 1 will look like. Caltrans has also confirmed the unusual means by which the completed bridge will get from where it will be built to where it will be installed.
On April 12, Caltrans released three artist’s renderings of the bridge, which will span across the canyon, rather than resting on columns as the previous bridge did. That 1967 structure about 45.5 miles north of the San Luis Obispo-Monterey county line was demolished March 16 through 22. It had been damaged by runoff-triggered landslides, which dislodged bridge supports.
Getting the new $24 million structure in place 320 feet above the canyon will be a challenge.
Jim Shivers, Caltrans spokesman, said Tuesday, April 18, that the agency’s engineer on the project confirmed the bridge will be assembled north of the installation site. Then the contractor, Golden State Bridge of Benicia, will use the “bridge-launch” or “roller-launch” method to s-l-o-w-l-y slide the heavy, 15-girder completed structure into place.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Shivers said of the method he called “a very slow process that will probably take a couple of days or so to move the bridge into place.”
However, time is of the essence for area residents trapped between the bridge site and some landslides that have closed other sections of the scenic All American Highway traveled by so many visitors annually from all over the world.
The closure has also been hard on businesses in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. As of Tuesday, the popular route was closed to through traffic from Ragged Point to a point more than 46 miles to the north.
Representatives of Caltrans, Golden State, various subcontracting and consulting firms, State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have been brainstorming continually to shortcut the process without sacrificing safety or quality of the finished product, according to Bob Riggins, assistant structure representative for MNS Engineers.
He said Tuesday that the planning team originally focused on “how we could cut months off the project. Then we started to ask what we could do to shave a week here or there. Recently, we’ve gotten to the point of saving a day, getting something done a day sooner. And now, it’s ‘if we do this, could we do it in four hours instead of eight?’ ”
Crews work around the clock, seven days a week, according to Mel McColloch, president of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, who has lobbied tirelessly to get the highway reopened as soon as safely feasible.
He and others from this area took an exclusive tour of the bridge site and other areas Monday, April 17, getting to the restricted area from the north.
McColloch said the next day that the tour had convinced him “everything I was fighting for … cannot happen.” That would include the installation of a temporary span to carry traffic while the permanent bridge is being built. “There is absolutely, unequivocally no room” for that, he said, “especially with all the construction they have going on.”
Attorney Wiley Ramey, a member of the family that owns Ragged Point Inn and Resort, said he went on the tour “to find out if there was a detour that would be feasible.” Now, having seen the options, “I’m disappointed. It’s really difficult terrain, a lot more difficult than it looks like in pictures … I don’t see how they could build a detour” to get around the canyon.
After the group toured several possible bypass routes, both public and private, McColloch learned “they’re nearly impassable. By the time they could be made usable safely for the general public, the new bridge would be done.”
McColloch also lobbied successfully for an extra $1 million to speed up the project, but he’s worried about having so many concrete trucks traveling on the fragile highway. After the tour, he said, “I think they’ve agreed to allow construction crews to set up their own concrete plant right on site.”
Two other chamber board members traveling with him said they were equally impressed with the project.
Fidel Figueroa of San Simeon Lodge/San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill said, “We got a lot of answers. We have to give Caltrans a lot of credit. They are working very hard to get this highway open. I’m very optimistic.”
The condition of the bridge area “is definitely a lot worse than I thought,” said Miguel Sandoval of La Terraza Mexican Grill. “It’s a lot deeper and very steep. The ground is very soft, so every time you walk, you slide.”
Riggins of MNS Engineers said that, with recent rains, “the ground is still moving 1 to 1.5 inches a week.”
Sandoval said, “It was good to see that everything that can be done is being done to get it open as soon as possible,” thanks in part to “all the pressure Mel (McColloch) and others have been applying.”
Riggins said, “We understand the predicament of business owners” affected by the closure of Highway 1 and by wildfires last summer. “We know this is an economic hardship … we’d love to come up with something magical, so it could open tomorrow. All I can say is hang on, we’re going just as fast as humanly possible.”