When, Where, and How long, were questions discussed at a recent planning meeting with Caltrans representatives and community leaders regarding road closures during the upcoming emergency project to stabilize hillsides along the S-Curves and lower Topanga.
It’s a gargantuan project. Trying to pinpoint any of those times, strategize logistics, and determine how best to coordinate extensive repair while addressing the needs of community businesses and events in what could be a five-month project, is a feat in itself.
Caltrans Senior Construction Engineer, Michael Dipsia, said he hopes to complete this project before summer when traffic increases. Last year’s creek restoration project, after a number of mudslides followed the Old Fire, was completed under time and under budget.
“This project is to maintain the hillsides for safety,” said Dipsia, “while retaining the beauty of Topanga’s scenic highway. We want the public to know why we’re doing what we’re doing and how to achieve it.”
“There are four locations, possibly a fifth if there’s money for it, over a two-mile stretch of highway [that need reinforcement],” said Caltrans geologist Chris Harris, who explained it’s a hybrid system that will catch rocks falling from the highest point and direct them into a ditch where trucks will periodically collect and remove the rocks and debris. K-rails will reinforce the collecting nets for at least a year. “We are trying to catch 99 percent of the material that may slide,” said Harris.
The contractors for the project, Kevin Weisman and geologist Simon Boone, are specialty contractors, who will do the heavy lifting with cranes and possibly helicopters. Their company, Access Limited Construction Company, specializes in rockfall mitigation, slope stabilization, and difficult access drilling. They were hired to remediate damage in Big Sur when rains caused massive mudslides and rockfalls in steep terrain closing sections California State Highway 1 and damaged beyond repair the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge that led into the town.
“We cut our teeth on Big Sur,” said Boone. “We come into communities that are beautiful places to live but have big problems. We are aware of what you are facing but there’s a way to do this that protects the public and maintains the beauty of the place.”
One of the first steps addressed concerns that businesses and events would be interrupted by road closures and lose revenue that couldn’t be recovered.
To accommodate Caltrans in scheduling road closures, Joseph Rosendo, community liaison for the Chamber of Commerce, Stacy Sledge, president of the Town Council, and Roger Pugliese, TASC chair, created a Topanga Community “Alert List” for February through May, highlighting “red days,” when events “are crucial to the community and the road needs to be open,” and “black days,” when, adjustments and “work arounds” can be made to accommodate weekend events. The list is based on work being completed by June 1.
Most of the construction and preparation would take place at night, from 10 or 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The contractor proposed 55 nightshifts and three weekend shifts. The Alert List recommended that weekend closures only happen on one weekend day.
Weisman suggested that they can also create a schedule that is more flexible on weekends, such as a full road closure from 4-8 a.m. “The more restrictions, the longer the job,” he cautioned.
According to Boone, “We prep at night and can accomplish about 150-200 linear feet of roadway. If we had 1,600 feet prepped, that could be a full closure on a weekend. We do it more quickly during the day with full closure, slower at night when we lose efficiency.”
Dipsia said, “We can do it in 55 shifts, four, maybe five nights a week to start. I’d say 12 weeks with no weather, but I’m in for 20 weeks, start to finish, maybe five months.”
As they did on the creek restoration, Rosi Dagit, Sr. Biologist for the Resource Conservation District, will be working with Ed Aguilar, Caltrans Environmental Department geologist for habitat protection, to identify the most sensitive portions of the area. With the rain, trees are sprouting out early,” said Dagit. “That’s not a good time to trim them.” She also reminded everyone that February is nesting time for birds.
Aguilar assured that “all the work is thought out beforehand,”
“For now, geologists are discussing how to minimize impacts while stabilizing the slope,” Dagit wrote in an e-mail. “With the rain, they can see what the level of threat is and decide the best way forward. It is a really big project but I feel good about the contractor. We so appreciate all the effort Michael Dipsia is doing to coordinate. We lucked out when he came our way!”
After five days of rain, the road is closed again as Caltrans clears up yet another mudslide, while the maintenance crew and geologist monitor the stability of the slope embankments along Topanga. Soon, they will iron out all the logistics of the work and get the green light to proceed.
Our job as residents is to be patient and keep lines of communication open as everyone involved endeavors to complete a project that “best serves the public, the environment, our scenic highway, and our community,” as Stacy, Joseph, and Roger so eloquently stated in their Alert List proposal.
As Dipsia said at the meeting—something we all know well: “Topanga is an ongoing thing, no end to it. It’s a lifestyle. We are telling the hills to stay where they are. We love you but we want our people to be safe.”