South Coast Hwy. Carmaggeddon tentatively scheduled for September

The California Department of Transportation is planning to start a box culvert project at the Village Mart gas station near Broadway and South Coast Highway tentatively in September, as depicted here as a conceptual graphic. The flood-prevention effort is expected to create significant traffic delays for the area through at least mid-October. | Photo courtesy of California Department of Transportation
By Bradley Zint | LB Indy

A flood-prevention project tentatively scheduled to begin in September in downtown Laguna Beach is setting the stage for an oceanfront “Carmageddon,” though officials warn that the job needs to move forward to prevent future damage.

The California Department of Transportation project, which the City Council reviewed Tuesday, involves closing lanes of Coast Highway near Broadway, across from Main Beach, while replacing an underground box culvert.

The culvert, officially named after Laguna Canyon, dates to 1927 and provides passage for storm runoff to move out to the beach, said Andrew Oshrin, a program coordinator with Caltrans District 12. Inspections have noted that its concrete is crumbling and its steel reinforcing bars are exposed.

“The reinforcement is literally rusted and corroded away,” Oshrin told the council, adding that the system is “well past its design life and it’s starting to deteriorate. Caltrans is very concerned about public safety before there is catastrophic failure.”

The project, comprised of two phases that officials hope to have completed by mid-October, will also involve installing new curbs, gutters, sidewalks, catch basins and drainage inlets for the area. The idea is to complete the endeavor during Laguna’s dry spell, before the fall and winter rainy season.

“The best way to handle this project is to handle it now, to do it quickly and to do it in an orderly fashion,” Oshrin said.

The project has a lot of moving parts because of the live utilities there: a water line, high-pressure gas line and clay sewer pipe among them, Oshrin said.

“There will be a lot going in,” he added.

To move things along, Caltrans has given the contractor incentives to finish early and disincentives if completing late.

Construction equipment will be staged at the Village Mart gas station, particularly affecting it, the Le Macaron pastries shop, and Havaianas sandal store along that immediate stretch of South Coast Highway.

City officials noted that the Caltrans project coincides with a city project near Beach Street that is also expected to bring new flood-prevention measures for the downtown.

The Caltrans job will require closure of Coast Highway, bringing movement through the stretch between Broadway and Ocean Avenue down to a trickle. The first stage will affect the northbound lanes before a second stage affecting the southbound lanes. Each stage could take around two weeks.

The job will also require, at times, 24/7 operations, weekend scheduling and other noisy prep work: cement trucks pouring, cranes maneuvering and smashing pile driving. These actions will necessitate exemptions of city noise ordinances and may particularly affect residents of nearby Cliff Drive, officials said.

Delays in getting the project done increase the chance of a sinkhole, which would devastate roadways even worse than the partial closures planned this time, Oshrin said.

“It really is going to be a painful Band-Aid to tear off, but it has to be done,” he added.

Traffic mitigation is being planned, said City Manager John Pietig. In addition to various public alerts, the city will need people to divert cars because there are few stoplights there.

Pietig added that there is “never a good time” to do a construction project of this magnitude, though the effects may be less severe than normal considering the COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools, decreased tourism and caused more people to work from home instead of commuting.

He noted the importance of the project, pointing back to the flooding of 2010 and saying these types of projects could save businesses from damage.

“This is the right thing to do for our downtown,” Pietig said. “We need to get it done, but it will be a pain for sure.”

Mayor Bob Whalen suggested installing signage as far north as Crystal Cove and as far south as Crown Valley Parkway that warns drivers about traffic backups.

Councilman Steve Dicterow predicted jams up to a half-mile in both directions of Coast Highway.

Some business owners expressed concern Tuesday that the project will hurt their already-depleted sales revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cecilia Castro de Andrade, who owns Havaianas, said September around Labor Day is an important period for her business, more so than October and November.

“The economic impact [of this project] … will be huge,” she said.

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