In February last year, a landslide led to the failure of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and closed Highway 1. In May, 36 miles to the north, more than 5 million cubic yards of dirt and rock dwarfed earlier slides, covering a quarter mile of tarmac at Mud Creek.
With lots of planning and a year of hard work, the reopening of Highway 1 through Big Sur on July 18, 2018, was noteworthy from Monterey to New York.
A big milestone to be sure, and important even to international travelers as a stop on their globe-trotting vacations, but just as newsreels used to herald the work of men building the nation’s skyscrapers well before the last beam was lifted into place, folks do like to celebrate early.
John Madonna, the second generation contractor based out of San Luis Obispo with his own company since 1978, knows a bit about how people respond around big projects, and who gets credit.
“The guys are definitely still working up there,” he said, in early September. “Highway 1 is crazy right now. It was reopened but only one lane through. The traffic is horrendous.”
While dignitaries and politicians attended the July 20 ribbon-cutting ceremony at Ragged Point—thrilled, not only that early worries the route would be closed for multiple years were unfounded, but that traffic flowed a full two days earlier than scheduled—Madonna said he made sure to get time on the schedule to recognize his crew.
“These guys have given a full year of their lives,” he said. “That’s something people don’t realize about the work but we hired a lot of good people who have been willing to give up a solid year and a half, with every waking hour for the chance to be part of something big. To me, it is as big as being on the Empire State [building in New York City] or the Golden Gate. Something you point to the rest of your life and say ‘I helped do that.’”
One of the company men still up there every day is their vice president, Mark Amish, who, to hear Madonna tell it, might have made the road open through force of will.
“Mark challenges everybody, including me, and pushes to get results no matter what,” he added paraphrasing what he told attendees on the day, “He’s very goal oriented and never lets an answer go unquestioned.”
The relentless effort was manifest in moves that cost in the short run but evened out over the course of a $54 million project. Such as renting an additional mining truck to compensate for daily downtime on the eight massive haulers already on-site, or sending trucks on 12-hour round trips to import material from Porterville when quarries in Cambria reached their production capacity.
“It cost a lot more per load and doesn’t look like much at a time, but you factor that extra 100 tons a day into the progress and it’s all the difference,” Madonna said.
Intuition pays off, especially when you know you can trust old compatriots. Amish and Madonna went to high school together and have been in business since the beginning.
According to the folks over at Caltrans, the state agency which bankrolled the emergency contract for the repairs, it was one of Madonna’s senior employees of equally long standing who made the decision to pull workers off of the hillside at the Elephant Trunk project, where repairs were underway the day before the big slide in May.
Which isn’t to say that later work wasn’t dangerous, but when large rolling boulders threatened men and equipment moving a million tons of dirt at Mud Creek they did have the advantage of a $500 radar rig to spot the problem areas.
Nevertheless, there were two hits on trucks at the site.
“Eight million tons were moved in five minutes,” Madonna said. “We ‘only’ got to a million, but that’s twice as much as was moved in 1984.”
He added that what they’ve done, and are still working on, buttressing the new roadway with embankments, berms, and imported rock, is all laying a foundation.
“We’re still waiting on Mother Nature to put a roof on it and tell us what will stay,” he said.
Engineers expect two winters for the new slopes to fully stabilize.
In the meantime, Madonna has been thinking about the history for the route.
“There are photos of horse-drawn graders being used in the 30s,” he said. “Dynamite was how it was all excavated. We had to do that in a few places but it’s a major cause of instability. We’re working on that foundation.”
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.