The California Department of Transportation began the first phase of a project that will reopen and permanently restore a section on State Route 140 that was damaged during a 2006 rock slide.
The $133 million Ferguson Project will restore two-lane access on the road between Mariposa and El Portal, providing a direct route to enter Yosemite National Park. The project is funded through the federal Major Damage Permanent Restoration Program.
On Friday, Caltrans, Mariposa County elected officials and other partners gathered at the construction site on the east side of the Ferguson rock slide for a kickoff ceremony.
Officials said that the undertaking has been split into two phases. The first phase, which consists of removing113,000 tons of loose material, will start immediately and is expected to continue until September.
The second phase is the construction of a 750-foot rock shed on the same alignment. The structure is designed to include two 12-foot-wide lanes, two 8-foot-wide shoulders and a 4-foot-wide emergency walkway on the river side.
According to Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, this will be just the second structure of its kind in the United States.
Construction is expected to begin in spring or summer 2016 and finish by fall 2019, although the schedule is subject to change depending on weather and availability of equipment, officials said.
Currently, drivers use a temporary bypass that is constrained to one-way traffic control.
During the removal of debris and construction of the rock shed, State Route 140 will remain open, but officials are asking motorists to drive with extra caution near the construction zone.
The project, according to Caltrans, is expected to improve mobility and decrease travel time. It should also enhance safety for commuters and park visitors.
Scott Gediman, a Yosemite National Park spokesman, explained that there are five entrances to the park, but Route 140, often referred to as the “all-weather highway,” is one of the most popular because it is open year-round and brings in visitors from the Central Valley and the Bay Area.
“This is a tremendously important corridor,” Gediman said. “It is the (entrance route) lowest in elevation, so it’s also important for tour buses.”
“With the rock fall and all of the events that happened, it certainly impacted (park) visitation,” he added.
The rock-slide activity began within the Merced River canyon on April 2006. The rock slide at the Ferguson ridge covered about 600 feet of the highway.
By August 2006, two bridges were erected across the Merced River to temporarily divert traffic around the rock slide. But the temporary bridges did not allow vehicles over 28 feet in length, including tour buses, from crossing and using the detour.
During this time, the Mariposa County economy took a big hit, said Rosemarie Smallcombe, Mariposa County District 1 supervisor. Mariposa businesses, she said, are highly dependent on the visitors that make their way to the park. The rock slide was especially detrimental to local restaurants and other small businesses and even forced some to close, she said.
It was not until 2008 that the bridges were completed.
It’s been nine years since the rock slide, but some businesses in Mariposa County are still recuperating, especially as other factors, like the drought, have added to the problem.
Whitewater rafting in Mariposa, for example, is the second-largest tourist draw in Mariposa County’s economy, Smallcombe explained. It brings in about $2.5 million a year, but that’s when there’s water, she said.
The temporary bypass works for now, she said, but she and others are excited about the completion of the Ferguson Project.