Storm-damaged Highway 74 opens 4 a.m. to midnight weekends under escort

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Almost 200 Idyllwild and Pine Cove residents listen to a presentation by Caltrans officials updating the progress on repairing storm damaged Highways 74 and 243 leading to the mountain communities, June 13, in the Idyllwild K-8 School gymnasium. Tony Ault photo

Idyllwild and Pine Cove residents filled the Idyllwild K-8 School gymnasium Thursday, June 13, to learn Caltrans will open Highway 74 from Hemet to Mountain Center under escort every weekend from 4 a.m. to midnight through Labor Day to help the town’s ailing economy.

By a raise of hands, the change was decided by a majority of the residents attending the Caltrans State Route 74 and 243 Emergency Project Update, even though they were told it could delay the project to rebuild the flood-damaged highway for more than a month.

The unusual communitywide decision to open the highway, now under a $30 million Caltrans emergency reconstruction project, for more hours on weekends came after they were offered the change by Caltrans officials and Ames Construction representatives attending the community meeting.

“Let’s just get it done. Think of the school kids,” one resident yelled in disagreement with the offer.

However, the residents learned that Highway 243 was more seriously damaged by the April 14 Valentine’s record-breaking rains and flooding and another major downpour in May and may not be completely open for more than a year, according to Caltrans engineers. Highway 243 was the key link to Pine Cove and Idyllwild from Banning and other major desert cities along Interstate 10. Currently Highway 243 is partially open from Pine Cove to Lake Fulmor, but it is completely closed down to Banning due to complete highway washouts and landslides that are continuing to plague the Ames Construction crews contracted by Caltrans to repair and reopen the highway.

The highway portion to Lake Fulmor has been closed off and on for boulder removals and mountainside reconstruction work.

The community vote to extend the weekend escorted openings on Highway 74 was called by Terri Kasinga, Caltrans District 8 Public and Media Affairs officer, after several explanations were given to clarify the decision. The residents, many of them local business owners, have seen a major downturn in tourism because of the two highway projects that have limited travel to the mountain communities. She said with the decision to extend the Highway 74 hours, those crews will switch their attention to help with the Highway 243 crews on the weekends.

“They will not be home watching TV,” Kasinga said.

Since the record-breaking spring rains, the only highway access to Idyllwild has been via Highway 74 from the desert communities or Highway 371 from Aguanga through Anza to Highway 243 that is open from Mountain Center to Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Lake Fulmor.

After nearly two months of work on Highway 74 from Hemet, it was opened under escort from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 6 p.m. to midnight daily with the exception of some extended hours on holiday weekends. Ames crews were originally working 12 hour shifts day and night on the project, but now the nighttime work is limited to about two to three hours each night because of the escort service.

The result has been a severe downturn in the mountain communities’ economy, which is mainly dependent upon tourism. Now that summer, their highest tourist season, is upon the local businesses, residents are even more concerned.

Kassinga said the Thursday construction update meeting was more out of concern for how Caltrans and Riverside County could help the communities pull out of their economic slump. She said the highway reconstruction work will be continuing day and night except on holidays until the projects are completed. Meanwhile, they were offered the extended weekend escort hours at least through August when the predicted monsoon season brings more heavy rain.

Riverside 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington told residents at the meeting that the county has also stepped in to help their economy by allocating $50,000 for a series of electronic billboards placed throughout the Inland Empire, boasting of the recreation and opportunities offered by the mountain communities.

“Good progress is being made on Highway 74,” Washington said. “We realize the economic impact on your communities and the one thing we share throughout the county, throughout 2 and one-half million residents is we all love Idyllwild., so we want to see people come up.”

Ames construction representatives at the meeting told residents to date they have spent 44,000 staff hours and moved 120,000 cubic yards of dirt repairing and replacing the roadways and to date spent nearly half of the $30 million emergency project funds allocated by Caltrans and Riverside County.

“You’re getting a new road. We are not putting a Band-Aid on it,” Richard Rusnak, District 8 resident engineer, said. “It’s not being fixed with duct tape and staples. You are getting a new road.”

Much of their work was delayed by a major rainstorm in May and a series of other storms that continued to erode some of the roadway and destroy some of the other work they had done.

Kasinga said just after the Feb. 14 rains, Caltrans found 43 locations of damage that needed to be fixed, and after the May rains with some repair work underway, they are now up to 100 damaged locations: 58 locations on Route 74 and 48 locations on Route 243, some larger than others. Ames has repaired 19 locations on Route 74 and six locations on Route 243.

Concluding the town hall meeting, California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Alvarez from the San Gorgonio Pass office asked residents using the highways under construction to be patient and to obey all the traffic rules. Those include 25 mph on the escorted Highways 74 and 243, not leaving vehicles during escort and no passing. He warned that traffic tickets given on highways under construction will cost double.

“We have given a lot of tickets,” he said. “Watch for the traffic signs. Be nice to the flagman.”

Also giving updates at the meeting were Alex Tardy, meteorologist for the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who warned of the coming late summer monsoons; Mike Feydar from Mountain Disaster Preparedness who said a complete evacuation plan is set for Idyllwild if ever needed; Caltrans District 8 Director Mike Beauchamp who said the project is well underway; Hemet Sheriff’s Department Capt. Leonard Purvis; Amgad Benjamin, Caltrans resident engineer who announced Highway 74 will be open for four days over the Fourth of July holiday; Riverside County EMD; Idyllwild Fire, Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service and other city, state and county officials.

Updated information on Highways 74 and 243 construction progress may be obtained from www.caltrans8.info, the Caltrans District 8 public affairs offices care of Terri Kasinga at (951) 232-4268 or shane.massoud@dot.ca.gov.

Tony Ault can be reached by email at tault@reedermedia.com.