Traffic nightmare may last six weeks

The slide area is roughly 150-feet-wide and 30-feet-deep and is located on the landside of Pacific Coast Highway, across from the Chart House Restaurant. The large red machine on the right, once it's in position, will be used to reach up and remove the slide mass. Traffic on the highway has been reduced to one lane in each direction to allow room for the equipment and for vehicle safety. Photo by: Hans Laetz / TMT

Traffic delays on Pacific Coast Highway are approaching 90 minutes at peak hours. The situation is affecting other freeways and streets, with travelers overloading those roads as they try to avoid driving through Malibu.

By Hans Laetz/Special to The Malibu Times

Frustrating delays on Pacific Coast Highway may be a fact of life for several more weeks, as a $2.5 million emergency landslide removal project has been blocked by a few Sunset Mesa homeowners.

Pacific Coast Highway motorists have flooded city and state phone lines with complaints after seeing little apparent progress at clearing the landslide, which has reduced traffic to one lane in each direction just east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Traffic delays along the highway are approaching 90 minutes at peak hours, and spillover traffic is affecting freeways in the San Fernando Valley, Sepulveda Pass and the Westside.

The California Department of Transportation announced Monday that it would open another two lanes, but canceled that after discovering there’s not enough room to safely squeeze in the two additional lanes and leave room for a giant excavator to pivot.

The last-minute change infuriated Malibu officials, who had been promised that four traffic lanes would be available for commuters Tuesday morning. Caltrans engineers now want to see how the precarious bluff will react to earth movers before moving the excavator closer to the hill and restriping the road from two to four lanes.

“We don’t know what to expect when that dirt starts to come down, and we can’t move in close until we know that,” said an exasperated Raja Mitwasi, the chief deputy director at Caltrans regional headquarters. “We’re frustrated that we couldn’t move right in and start work Sunday.”

Caltrans workers spent the entire weekend trying to get permission from six Sunset Mesa homeowners to cross their property to remove an estimated 20,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock that have cleaved off of the mesa and are sliding toward the highway. Mitwasi said only two homeowners have granted permission.

One Sunset Mesa homeowner has outright refused to allow Caltrans to remove dirt from his property, delaying the project several days. Three others are unsure what to do, and want to give their backyards to the state, which doesn’t want the liability.

State officials are taking legal steps to allow them to move on the land and begin dirt removal from below, said Caltrans project manager Syed Huq.

At one point, he said, they had considered lifting bulldozers over the Sunset Mesa houses by crane to get to the top of the slide. “We can’t just go in there and plow through somebody’s house to bring in a bulldozer from the top,” he told Malibu City Councilmembers Monday night.

Huq was given the woeful task of telling Malibu that one lane in each direction may be a fact of life for the four-to-six weeks it will take to remove tons of rubble. The highway agency sent its field geologist, engineer and project manager to the City Council meeting to explain why so little apparent progress was being made on clearing the landslide.

The Pacific Coast Highway restriction has snarled traffic on the 101 and 405 freeways as overflow traffic bypasses Malibu, and many surface streets in the Westwood and West Los Angeles areas are more gridlocked than usual, as cars cannot get onto the overburdened 405.

The Caltrans field workers said they had been working continuously since the slide occurred a week ago, and had to bring in a one-of-a-kind machine that can reach up over the bluff to bring down dirt. “We can’t pull out the bottom of the cliff without risking a catastrophic failure endangering the public and the excavator operator,” Huq said.

Huq said that once the right-of-way battle is finished, it would take the giant machine two weeks to bring the hill down.

Malibu city officials, embarrassed by having told constituents that four lanes would be open Tuesday, said they consider this a public relations fiasco on Caltrans’ part.

“People in Malibu are pretty hardy and we understand if there is a big problem along the road,” Councilmember Jeff Jennings said at Monday’s meeting. “But the process of getting this information out has been the worst I have ever seen.”

Caltrans officials also ruled out a three-lane configuration, and told doubting councilmembers that one lane must be reserved for emergency traffic if fewer than four lanes exist.

The giant backhoe being used is the only one of its type west of Missouri, a Caltrans contractor said. It was brought to the area in 13 truckloads and reassembled on the roadside Sunday night. The backhoe will sit atop a 10-foot-high dirt bench being built atop the roadway in order to reach over the top of the massive cliff failure.

Aerial photographs show a 150-foot-long crevice paralleling the highway, about 30 feet inland and atop a 60-foot bluff. The 90-foot-long backhoe is the only equipment that can safely reach the top of the bluff and pull it down, engineers said.