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Forces of nature eating away at the Sonoma County coastline near Gleason Beach have compelled the closure of the southbound Highway 1 lane through the area indefinitely while Caltrans develops an emergency plan to move the road away from the eroding cliff.

A traffic signal installed and activated last week will allow motorists through in one direction at a time for the foreseeable future, and at least until late summer or fall — the earliest that construction of a temporary detour could begin, Caltrans spokesman Allyn Amsk said. A longer- term, major realignment won’t get underway until 2019.

The result will be almost inevitable delays of 5 to 10 minutes for up to 4,900 drivers daily who travel the coastal highway during peak season, Amsk said.

The temporary solution is a concern for emergency response personnel with the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, whose medical and rescue staff stay busy up and down the Sonoma Coast all year round, but especially during summer, Chief Sean Grinnell said.

But locals say Caltrans’ closure of the compromised southbound lane is necessary and desirable, given the road’s deterioration. Winter storms abraded the cliff edge up to the outer fog line painted along the highway, causing slumping and large fissures in the pavement to develop.

“It’s so scary, because we have seen it erode right to the edge of the pavement. That’s how serious it is,” said Glynda Christian, who lives just south of the site, on Calle del Sol. “My only question is, ‘Why wasn’t anything done sooner?’ ”

Indeed, some residents in the area, including a state park ranger, acknowledged cheating into the northbound lane when possible to avoid driving on the compromised southbound section in the weeks and months before the lane closure.

“It’s bad enough we don’t drive our firetruck over it,” Bodega Bay Fire Capt. Justin Fox said. “We actually go in the opposite lane to go around it.”

The retreat of the coastline at Gleason Beach, located midway between Bodega Bay and Jenner, has been evident to homeowners in the area for years, but especially since 1998, when heavy El Niño rains pummeled the cliff below a collection of about 20 houses, destabilizing the structures and causing county officials to condemn several of them as uninhabitable, despite millions of dollars spent on seawalls and other physical barriers.

In the ensuing years, at least three homes have been demolished and a half dozen others tagged by the county as unsafe as the landscape continued to erode, undercutting houses and putting the highway in jeopardy.

Finally, last winter, it began “sloughing off big chunks at a time,” Fox said.

Caltrans has spent several years designing a major realignment that would shift a roughly three-quarter-mile stretch of road 400 feet inland. The proposal, which is still undergoing environmental review, would include an elevated portion about 900 feet long spanning Scotty Creek and adjacent wetlands.

But after Caltrans maintenance crews discovered March 11 that erosion had reached the fog line, the agency initiated planning on an interim project that included moving a shorter length of highway — roughly 1,000 feet in length — about 14 feet eastward until construction could begin on the longer-term solution, anticipated in 2019, Amsk said.

It apparently took several months for Caltrans to secure funding and work through environmental issues related to installation of the traffic signal and closure of the southbound lane.

The southbound shoulder was closed March 11, and reflective cones and edge lines were installed to ensure motorists didn’t veer from the lane, Amsk said. Caltrans also announced during a public meeting on the realignment project that the roadway was deteriorating more quickly than anticipated, necessitating an interim solution.

Caltrans has monitored the road since then, he said.

Amsk said preliminary design of what he calls the “micro-alignment” could be done by this week, though right-of-way and environmental issues have yet to be worked out. It was unclear how soon construction could begin or how long it might take, though he estimated it could start in mid-August or September.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.