Caltrans provokes more outrage with Hwy. 1 ‘fixes’

Workers using heavy equipment grind stripes off the road Tuesday, Oct. 15, on Highway 1 north of San Simeon Acres.
Workers using heavy equipment grind stripes off the road Tuesday, Oct. 15, on Highway 1 north of San Simeon Acres. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

It’s too soon to call the Highway 1 chip-seal fix a botched job, but early reports aren’t reassuring. Cyclists are complaining that even after the new treatment — which was supposed to smooth out the rough, chip-sealed surface — the portion of the highway completed thus far is not in good shape.

Given the popularity of cycling along this scenic stretch of coastal highway, between Cambria and the Monterey County line, that could do serious harm to tourism.

Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers responded with reassurances that “the surface roughness will continue to smooth over time.”

We hope that’s the case, but that sounds suspiciously similar to what we were told back in January, in response to complaints about the original chip sealing. Back then, Shivers said the new surface “is rougher, but with additional sweeping and with more of the small rocks becoming embedded in the pavement in the coming months, conditions should be greatly improved.”

Soon after, though, Caltrans agreed to partner with the UC Davis Pavement Research Center with the hope of finding a way to smooth the highway.

The Davis study included test rides by cyclists on treated portions of Highway 198 in Monterey County, as well as Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County. Based on that research, it was determined that the sand sealing — an application of an asphalt emulsion followed by a layer of clean sand — would be a good solution.

But cyclists who tested a recently completed section say it’s still not good enough — one cyclist gave it a “D” grade — and a Caltrans official acknowledge that Highway 1 chip sealing was “considerably rougher” than Highway 198 to begin with, so the final product is not going to be the same.

County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whose district includes the North Coast, said he’s looked at the recently completed section, as well as a test area completed earlier, and noted that the quality is inconsistent, with some portions appearing smoother than others. Gibson said he’s going to wait until the work is complete, and UC Davis researchers measure and evaluate the results, before deciding on a next step.

“I’m going to decide whether it’s worth the effort to lobby for something better to be done, but I’m frustrated (Caltrans) did bare-minimum work,” he said, adding that it’s “a bit of an insult to the highway.”

We agree. It’s especially frustrating that this might have been avoided if the original chip seal had not used the unusually large rocks that have been blamed for creating the rough surface.

It’s especially outrageous that, as we’ve noted before, a similar problem occurred in 2010 on two highways in Lake County in Northern California. A hue and cry was raised there when a Caltrans chip sealing, done with rocks larger than ones used in the past, left the highways rougher than they were to begin with. Although circumstances differed — the complaints were primarily from motorists who complained that the chip sealing hid ruts in the highways, rather than repairing them — the problem should have alerted Caltrans to the need to take a closer look at the size of rocks used in chip sealing.

In Lake County, Caltrans wound up repaving the highways roads at a cost of $9 million — part of a larger, $17 million paving job.

We aren’t suggesting that millions more be spent to repave Highway 1, at least not at this point. Repaving would cost between $6 million and $7 million — on top of the nearly $3.5 million already spent on chip sealing and sand sealing. But if sand sealing still leaves the road too rough for safe cycling, repaving could be the best solution.

For now, we urge Caltrans to monitor the sand sealing as closely and carefully as possible to ensure the best results. And, to avoid a repeat in other communities, we strongly recommend that the lessons learned from this experience be shared with Caltrans districts throughout the state.