Roads' Storm Repairs Costly

Times Staff Writers

Reopening Southern California's storm-damaged roads already has cost the state more than $43 million, with final damage estimates expected to climb much higher, Caltrans officials said Monday.

Local governments around the region are expecting to spend tens of millions of dollars of their own. Los Angeles County officials, for example, said Monday that, in unincorporated areas, the cost to repair damaged roads, some 40 of which remained closed, will come to about $38 million.

Eventually, some of the cost could be reimbursed by the federal government, but that would come only if President Bush issued a disaster declaration for the area, which has not yet happened. In the meantime, local officials expect the state to pick up much of the cost, despite continued budget shortfalls.

The damage is likely to get worse this week, with rain expected to begin falling today and intensify Wednesday.

Road crews are working around the clock to repair roadways and bolster weakened foundations before the next round of storms, said Doug Failing, director of Caltrans' District 7, which includes Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Roadbeds are already saturated and the rainy season is far from over, he said.

"I'm very concerned because of the rains coming in," Failing said. "We need to get in and shore up those roadways."

National Weather Service forecasters said the rain will be generally moderate, with a maximum of about 2 inches in the foothill areas most susceptible to mudslides. But with many areas still soggy, that could be enough to cause more mudslides and some flooding along small streams clogged with debris from the four-day deluge that began Jan. 7, forecasters said.

"That's not a lot, but we really haven't dried out since those heavy rains two weeks ago," said Bill Patzert, a meteorologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "The streams and washes are still flowing pretty strongly, and a lot of hillsides are still teetering on the brink of slides."

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties alone, Caltrans has dispatched 700 maintenance workers to clear roads damaged by flooding, mudslides and erosion from the record rainfall, Failing said. Across the region, a handful of roads remain closed or have only limited access.

Sections of California 33 and California 150 in the Ojai area remain closed indefinitely as workers remove several mudslides and make other repairs.

Ortega Highway in south Orange County also remains closed because of a 120-foot-wide sinkhole, forcing commuters to drive around the Santa Ana Mountains to Lake Elsinore. A $1.5-million repair effort is expected to be completed later this week.

California 18, which leads to Big Bear, remains closed in several spots. One stretch that links the ski resort town to Lucerne Valley is washed out and could take up to two months to repair.

In Los Angeles, San Gabriel Canyon Road in the Angeles National Forest has been closed since part of it collapsed down a hillside. Also, Topanga Canyon Boulevard between Pacific Coast Highway and Grand View Drive remains shut to through traffic, with no estimated date for reopening.

Residents can get to the San Fernando Valley, but access to beach communities is limited. Residents may leave Topanga Canyon in a single lane only during commute hours, much to the annoyance of Sandy Berry, a researcher who lives in the canyon and commutes daily to Santa Monica.

"It's kind of chancy," Berry said. "If I forget something, I can't go back."

Sean McGee, a security consultant who lives on a bluff at the base of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at Pacific Coast Highway, said he is accustomed to zipping over the canyon road to see clients in the San Fernando Valley, a trip that usually takes about 45 minutes.

But now the only route is through the Sepulveda Pass on Interstate 405. On Wednesday, McGee said, it took him three hours just to travel south on I-405 three miles from the Ronald Reagan Freeway to the Roscoe Boulevard exit.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," said McGee, who stayed home Monday to avoid the drive.

Caltrans has paid $27.5 million in private contracts for 28 emergency repair jobs across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, he said. That equates to about one-fifth of the annual repair budget for District 7, which includes 27 freeways covering 621 miles in both counties, an official said.

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Caltrans has spent $13.2 million on repairs, while $2.5 million of work is being done in Orange County, officials said.

Local governments, which are spending tens of millions more to unclog flood control channels, spruce up damaged parks and fix streets maintained by counties and cities, may have to rely on state and federal money to help them make repairs, officials said.

Ken Pellman, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said his agency plans to ask the Board of Supervisors today for permission to begin hiring contractors to perform the work.

Among the 40 county roads still closed or partly closed due to storm damage, the worst, San Francisquito Canyon Road from the Angeles National Forest boundary to Spunky Canyon Road, won't be repaired until September, Pellman said.

Officials said they expect the financial toll to continue to climb as they find new problems.

"Even though the rains have stopped, we're still seeing more slides and rock-fall movement in the slopes that support roadways," said Rose Melgoza, spokeswoman for Caltrans' District 8, which oversees Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The storms that pounded Southern California earlier this month dropped 16.47 inches of rain on downtown Los Angeles, making it the wettest 15-day period in the city on record.

Rainfall amounts were even higher in Ventura County's foothill cities of Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore, triggering washouts and widespread flooding on the narrow rural roadways that serve them, Failing said.

The main access to Ojai on the southern portion of California 33 is open in both directions. But that, too, could shut down if heavy rains return, Failing said. Work to stabilize a portion of the road eroded by surging flood channels is underway.

Meanwhile, California 150 linking Ojai to Santa Paula and California 33 north of Ojai remain closed.

Other regions have also suffered considerable damage, Failing said.

Southbound traffic on I-5 near Templin Highway is at a crawl as crews continue cleaning up a massive mudslide, but Caltrans expects to have three lanes open in each direction by Thursday.

Other roads that remain closed include California 38 between Angeles Oaks and Lake Williams, California 173 near Lake Arrowhead and California 142 near Chino.

"This is the worst we've ever experienced by far," said Melgoza.

Caltrans is also making about $1 million in repairs to the Santa Ana River bicycle trail, where portions of the path were eroded by fast-moving runoff.

In Malibu, where slide repair is estimated to cost $600,000 and two roads remain partly closed, the city is relying on the state Office of Emergency Services to pay for the work.

Public Works Director Yugal K. Lall said emergency services inspectors have not yet toured the city's damaged areas. Work cannot begin until the state agency steps in, Lall said.

"We had a lot of mudslides in the streets, and it's very expensive to repair them," he said.

Bill Tidwell, manager of operations for Orange County's Public Works Department, estimated it has cost $14.2 million to repair weather-related damage to parks, roads, storm drains and flood control channels.

In Ventura County, officials are dealing not only with road closures but the aftermath of a massive mudslide that killed 10 people in the community of La Conchita.

The costs of stabilizing the hillside could exceed more than $100 million, a figure officials say is far out of their reach. Residents have been allowed to return to the coastal hamlet with the warning that additional rain could trigger another slide.

Times staff writers Seema Mehta, Eric Malnic, Dan Weikel and Justin Dickerson contributed to this report.

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Caltrans has spent more than $43 million on emergency repairs for storm-damaged roads and highways in five Southern California counties.

Emergency repair costs: (in millions) Los Angeles $14.5 Ventura 13.0 Orange 2.5 Riverside and San Bernardino 13.2

Total 43.2

Source: Caltrans

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