Inside Seven
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Severe debris flows caused further damage to SR-39 during heavy rains in 2005.

San Gabriel Canyon Road (SR-39): What’s Next?
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 03/2012

A case for letting go of a beautiful forest highway

The San Gabriel Canyon Road, also known as SR-39, is one of the key southern entry points into the serene and scenic Angeles National Forest (ANF). It has also been the source of an ongoing public policy debate for Caltrans and other entities that use the highway.

Presently, closed due to washouts and rock slides, in August 2011 Caltrans determined it might be best to formally terminate the SR-39 Reopening Project and terminate its permit to operate and maintain the roadway in the ANF due to mounting environmental, safety, and financial challenges.

“Currently, state funds are scarce and we have to focus funds on areas that are beneficial to commuters, commerce, goods movement, and several communities,” said Deputy District Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman. “This highway is primarily for recreational use.”

Exacerbating the funding challenge is the fact that this aging highway is in need of major improvements.

“There’s a lot of work that would have to be done to re-open the closed section of highway,” said Raj Punjabi, the resident engineer for construction projects on SR-39. “We would have to prevent rocks from constantly falling onto the highway, fix the drainage system, remove and rebuild the roadway, and contend with an endangered species.”

District 7 has been actively pursuing the reopening of SR-39 for over 30 years via projects to stabilize the slopes and rocks along the highway, clearing the roadway of rocks and debris to prevent damage to drainage systems during heavy rains and snow, and researching and designing projects to reconnect the Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2) and SR-39 under the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP).

“Caltrans can no longer afford to spend resources for a highway that has such limited function,” said Freeman. “We do recognize that this highway is a valuable access road for other entities involved in the forest.”

SR-39 was built during the Depression via a partnership with Los Angeles County and the State of California. The 27-mile highway was finally completed between the City of Azusa and the SR-2 in the early 1960s. SR-39 serves an access road for outdoor enthusiasts, a single business, public safety vehicles, forest residents, Caltrans maintenance crews, the US Forest Service, and Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

Several challenges keep the highway from being reconnected to SR-2:

  • The Nelson Bighorn Sheep, a protected species according to the California Department of Fish and Game; due to this designation, not one sheep can be harmed or killed. Therefore, Caltrans cannot continue the project to reconnect the highway without resorting to extreme and costly mitigation measures.
  • The last 4.4 miles of SR-39 that intersects with SR-2 at Islip Saddle, and the biggest problem area, reaches an elevation of 6,500 feet at the highway’s highest point; it has been closed since 1978 due to a major rock slide.
  • Islip Saddle seasonally receives extreme snow levels, avalanches, and rock slides, requiring SR-2 to be closed at that point from winter to early spring.
  • Over the past several decades Caltrans maintenance forces have dwindled to low levels (due to budget restrictions), which makes it very difficult, costly and dangerous to effectively keep the highway clear and safe for motorists.
  • District 7 spends approximately $1.5 million a year to maintain the road. Additional damage along other parts of the highway could cost millions more.

“The Big Horn Sheep deserve the chance to reestablish themselves as part of the ecological environment in the forest,” said District 7 Deputy of Environmental Planning Ron Kosinski.

Caltrans is also seeking to relinquish of control of the entire length of SR-39, from the SR-2 to the Foothill Freeway (I-210) to the U.S. Forest Service, Los Angeles County, and/or the City of Azusa.

Aerial pictures of a repaired section of SR-39 after a landslide in 1970. A landslide picture from 1938.  About 10 miles north of Azusa. Modern picture of SR-39 from approximately at an elevation of 6500. Nelson's Big Horn Sheep.  Picture provided by the CA Department of Fish and Game.