Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
The PCH Latigo Bluffs team, left to right: from Maintenance, Bill Varley, Marvin Pruitt and Carla Schontzler; from Construction, Resident Engineer Zarif Saykali; Contractors Paul Burns and Joe Braga; and from Construction Lohit Kotha.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 04/2008

Heavy rains can take their toll on PCH when debris and rocks roll down the hillsides and onto the roadway. Caltrans teamwork restores the highway -- and the hillsides, too!

Aw, the beautiful and picturesque Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) or State Route 1 as it is also known – is one of California’s premier state highways.  Seen in countless movies, this vital California transportation artery meanders from Santa Monica along a coastal route bordered by the shoreline to the south and a long and rugged mountain range to the north.  It traverses a distance of 46 miles from where it intersects with the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) to Point Mugu in Ventura.  Along the way, fishing, swimming, boating, scuba diving, horseback riding, picnicking and surfing are the chief occupations of the day in the summer, and to a lesser degree in the cooler months.  The only way to get to the many recreation locales is via PCH, serving millions of motorists daily in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.  But what happens when Mother Nature takes her toll?


To fully understand the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep PCH safe and operational, one should understand a bit about the geography and history of the highway.  The adjacent scenic surroundings including slopes, rolling hillsides, cliffs and bluffs, are prone to rockslides, landslides and mudslides, especially during the rainy season.  During these times, the chief responsibilities for assigned Caltrans staff are close monitoring of the area, rock, boulder and debris removal from the roadway -- and slope stabilization projects if needed -- all for the safety of the motoring, pedestrian, bicycling and recreational public.


PCH was blasted out of solid rock, beginning in 1921.  It was not until June 29, 1929 that it was formally opened by then Governor C. C. Young, who said then of the new highway, “Just stand by this road tomorrow and watch the traffic that it serves…This road is going to play a tremendous part in the development of this wonderful country.”


Nearly 80 years and countless upgrades later, and today PCH, now designated a federal “Scenic Highway,” remains a beautiful and vital part of the California highway system.  This is, in no smart part, due to tremendous and constant upkeep and maintenance provided by Caltrans North Region Maintenance crews and a staff of expert geologists and Traffic Operations personnel.  


The terrain and topography along PCH between Santa Monica and Point Mugu in Ventura consists essentially of what are technically called Post Miocene, Miocene and basement rocks adjacent to the sea.  In some instances, these rocks can form unstable precipitous cliffs terminating at the highway.  . 


This was true recently for the Latigo Bluffs area of PCH located in Malibu just west of Corral Canyon Road.  Caltrans’ hard working Maintenance staff and top-notch geologists are no strangers to these cliffs.  That is because what goes on at many areas above and adjacent to the state highway is often the responsibility of Caltrans, especially on PCH, in order to keep the motoring public safe. 


The heavy rains in early 2008 took their toll at Latigo Bluffs when, in January, mud, debris and rocks found their way onto the roadway from high above the ocean, mostly due to storm runoff.  Maintenance staff immediately contacted Gustavo Ortega, Caltrans Certified Engineering Geologist and Certified Hydrogeologist and Kristopher Barker, Caltrans Certified Engineering Geologist.  After inspection and evaluation, Ortega and Baker recommended a slope stabilization and material removal project.  Ortega explained that due to the heavy rains, the bluffs at Latigo had formed which he called rock “ledges” that required removal and stabilization.  Maintenance crews also worked to keep the roadway clear of debris, and a five-week Construction project was initiated to remove the “ledges” and stabilize the bluffs over PCH. 


To help facilitate the safe removal of the slide material, a special piece of heavy equipment with a long arm, called an excavator, was brought in.  “The use of a 95-foot long-reach excavator, used to remove some of the unstable bluff material, was unusual,” said Ortega.  “We normally work with 30-foot long-reach excavators.”  The unique equipment is helping to facilitate safe and effective removal of the large rocks, debris and slide material.  "I enjoy working on these types of projects because each slide and recommendation is unique, Ortega said.  “What works in mitigating a landslide in one location does not necessarily work in another one.  These challenges give me an opportunity to continue to grow and learn.”


Resident Engineer, Zarif Saykali said, “Construction staff took quick action to restore and keep PCH safe and operational.”  Other team members vital to the success of this project are, from Maintenance: Area Superintendent and Major Disaster Restoration Coordinator Bill Varley; Area Superintendent Marvin Pruitt; and Carla Schontzler Maintenance Supervisor; from Construction: Resident Engineer Zarif Saykali and Transportation Engineer Lohit Kotha; from contractor Burns-Pacific Company, Paul Burns and Joe Braga; the California Highway Patrol (CHP); and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.



 “Caltrans, the CHP, L. A. County Sheriff’s and Burns-Pacific are working daily to prevent future landslides at the Latigo Bluff corridor and keep the roadway safe,” added Saykali.  “Teamwork is making this project a success for the residents of Malibu and California motorists.  Public safety is Caltrans number one priority.”  Pruitt agrees.  He added, “This project has been a true team effort between Maintenance and Construction staff.  “And Caltrans also thanks the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s for their assistance with traffic control and traffic safety.”


After slope work has completed in April, Maintenance crews will continue to monitor the bluffs up and down the coast.  And they will also see the benefits of all of their hard work.  I get a sense of satisfaction witnessing the projects from start to end,” concluded Ortega.  “After a project is completed and I drive by, I reflect on the efforts of Caltrans' teamwork and units involved in producing a safe ride for the traveling public."



A close up view of what is called a rock ledge, or overhang, slated for removal for the safety of the motoring public. A special excavator reaches up to 95-feet-high in the air to assist with rock ledge (overhang) and boulder removal. Another rock ledge is seen from below -- before the excavator is brought in. Again, the excavator makes swift work of rock ledge, boulder and slide material removal.