Day and night guided access along damaged state Route 74 through the San Bernardino National Forest got underway Friday, and in two months, limited travel will be allowed on the northern half of state Route 243, where the road collapsed during heavy downpours.
Caltrans District 8 officials said the 24/7 escorts on Highway 74 between Hemet and Mountain Center were timed to coincide with increased travel for Labor Day weekend.
Agency staff joined Riverside County transportation officials and engineers from Burnsville, Minnesota-based Ames Construction Inc. in Idyllwild Tuesday night to advise residents of the change.
According to Caltrans, all motorists using the 74 between Hemet and Mountain Center will continue to be under escort by road crew vehicles. The 15-mile segment was shut down on the night of Feb. 14 after torrential rains caused the two-lane artery to collapse in several places.
Similarly, that same night, most of Route 243 was closed to everything except residential traffic between Mountain Center and Idyllwild, while the entire highway was closed from Idyllwild to Banning after portions washed out, and an entire section just above Lake Fulmor gave way, sliding down the side of the mountain.
Officials said the goal is to open the northern half of the mountain highway on Nov. 1, but access may be tightly controlled and likely involve escorts, as on the 74.
In four to six weeks, that route will no longer require escorts, but will instead be converted to flagging operations, with motorists held briefly in either direction for single-lane passage, according to Caltrans.
Beginning in mid-March, sufficient space was repaired on the 74 to permit traffic on the highway, under escort and at a maximum 25 mph, during a few hours each morning and night. The hours of operation were expanded in May and again in June, though pilot vehicles continued to guide motorists along the damaged route.
Between Mountain Center and Lake Fulmor, all of Highway 243 is available to commuters, day or night. However, the northern half of the highway remains largely inaccessible due to the ongoing reconstruction work.
Caltrans counted more than three dozen points along the 243 that required repairs, while nearly 60 spots on Highway 74 needed attention — the worst being the Strawberry Creek crossing three miles west of Mountain Center, where the roadway caved in and disappeared.
The emergency repair projects are expected to cost the state about $30 million by the time they’re finished.