Highway 1 realignment now open on the Sonoma Coast

Finishing touches still underway on $62.5 million project, but travel is a go on new Highway 1 realignment at Gleason Beach.|

The central Sonoma Coast has a new look, apparent both to visitors on the ground and to those traveling through on a brand new section of Highway 1, which opened to public use for the first time Wednesday night.

The new stretch of roadway runs about three-fourths of a mile between Bodega Bay and Jenner and includes an 850-foot-long bridge that rises 30 feet above Scotty Creek. It has room for bikes and for pedestrian travel, which will be set off from traffic by a concrete barrier on the western side. And it has a place to pause for an ocean view.

The span is now the largest human-made structure on the Sonoma Coast.

It’s part of a $62.5 million redesign of the highway and Scotty Beach area, now under the ownership of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

The full project includes beach access features still to come, an extension of the California Coastal Trail along the original highway alignment, and a bike and pedestrian bridge across Scotty Creek near the beach.

There also will be improvements to aid wetland restoration and upstream passage of endangered and threatened migrating fish, such as salmon, at the mouth of Scotty Creek, including removal of an box culvert there.

In addition, Permit Sonoma is developing a plan to remove of tons of concrete and structural litter below the precipice between Scotty and Gleason beaches. The debris is left over from homes that collapsed as the land below eroded. It also includes remnants from property owners’ earlier attempts to armor the vanishing cliffs. Caltrans is paying $5 million toward this work.

But the central fixture of the project is the newly aligned highway, its curving path now up to 400 feet inland from the original road alignment and the crumbling coast beyond.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he was “thrilled” by completion of what he called “an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

“This specific stretch of Highway 1, which is the spine of the coast, has been especially challenging, constantly being undermined by coastal erosion,” McGuire said via email. “The new alignment will ensure this vulnerable segment of highway remains open even with the new realities of sea-level rise. I’m excited that we’re finally here.”

Touted by Calrans District 4 Director Dina El Tawansy as the agency’s first sea-level rise adaptation project, it was initiated after several homes above the ocean began to give way during severe winter weather in 1998.

The creeping coastline then began to encroach on the southbound lane of traffic, eventually requiring a series of repairs, re-striping and periods of one-way traffic beginning in 2004.

Sea level rise, wave action, winds and storm surge are eating away at the bluffs with increasing speed, as much as 14 inches a year.

Nature’s forces are expected to scour away about 1.5 feet of land per year from the area by 2050 and 4.5 feet per year by 2100, according to an environmental impact report.

The southbound lane ultimately was abandoned in one area, and both lanes were shifted inland.

In the meantime, Caltrans and its partners started planning for a larger, permanent fix that developed over time into the existing project, despite some public objections over its scale and visual impact on the rural landscape.

Caltrans deemed it the least environmentally impactful of alternatives considered for the road replacement, which originally rose and dipped with the land through sensitive wetlands, Indigenous archaeological sites, spawning grounds for federally protected fish and geologically and seismically unstable terrain.

But some critics, horrified by its scale, dubbed it “the bridge to nowhere.”

The project nonetheless won unanimous support from the California Coastal Commission, in part because of provisions for environmental enhancement — features that also added considerably to the cost, in addition to multiple environmental studies, permits and regulatory requirements, Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said.

Though long estimated to cost somewhere in the $30-million-plus range, Weiss said Wednesday that figure represented only construction and did not include all project aspects, including those required by the Coastal Commission to offset impacts to the coast.

“The Gleason Beach Project demonstrates Caltrans’ commitment to providing a safe and reliable transportation network that serves all people, respects the environment, and provides for the economic prosperity of the region,” El Tawansy said in a news release Wednesday. “This project includes many innovative practices and solutions, which are a culmination of a nearly 20-year partnership with the community and numerous stakeholders.”

Most of that work is still ahead this year, including “daylighting” of Scotty Beach through removal of the bulky culvert and the length of highway above it to restore more natural flow to the creek in hopes of beckoning coho salmon and steelhead trout, which historically spawned in creek. There are plans to restore riparian habitat and wetlands, as well.

Existing roadway necessary to provide access to 13 houses mostly north of Scotty Beach will remain, but Sonoma County Senior Planner Gary Helfrich said most of it will be ground up and the area covered with native soil collected during the highway construction to build part of the California Coastal Trail, an integrated series of multiuse trails, paths and boardwalks intended eventually to span the 1,230-mile length of the California Coast.

Some of the other road alignment will be reconfigured for beach parking.

A low-profile bridge about 120-feet long is planned for bike and pedestrian travel as part of the trail across Scotty Creek.

The beach itself, generally open to the public though part of it was privately owned until 2020, will be developed by Sonoma County Regional Parks, which plans basic amenities including restrooms, bike racks, benches, trash receptacles, interpretive signage, viewing the trail and bridge, Park Planner Kenneth Tam said.

There will be community outreach and engagement to get public input on the park plans, Tam said.

The debris removal will be complicated, given the sheer bluffs and the size of some of the litter — “like, as big as a school bus” — as well as uncertainty about what’s contained in all the concrete, Helfrich said.

Large cranes and ground-penetrating radar will be needed to try to determine where there is rebar, or steel mesh or other materials that could prove hazardous to beachgoers. There also is at least one old septic tank among the detritus, several I-beams and unknown pieces that may have sunk in the surf.

“I’m excited to get that cleaned up,” Helfrich said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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