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Highway open again

Jenifer Ragland

It was a familiar scene of fanfare, gushing accolades and strings of eager motorists Friday, as U.S. Highway 50 was reopened – again.

There were no casino showgirls this time, but hoards of television media crews lined up to capture Gov. Pete Wilson arriving in a military-escorted helicopter.

“You’ve got every reason to be proud of yourselves – I’m damn proud,” Wilson told the crowd of California Department of Transportation officials and private contractors, who managed to open the highway one month ahead of schedule. “To anybody who wants to use the road this weekend, I have the privilege to say, you can start your engines.”

The governor was introduced by Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels, who thanked the administration for giving the department a mission and the authority to accomplish it.

“We’re back here again, hopefully for the last time,” Loben Sels said. “Our thanks to the really superb work of the contractors.”

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tom Davis joined in to give his accolades on behalf of the city’s 25,000 residents – all of whom have felt some impact from the consecutive natural disasters that kept the road closed off and on since Christmas.

“It’s estimated that there was $40 to $53 million in lost revenue, so we sincerely applaud everyone’s efforts to get Highway 50 open again,” he said. “This is a perfect example of government getting out of the way to get the job done.”

Assemblyman Thomas “Rico” Oller echoed that sentiment, presenting two of the three private contractors with certificates. Granite Construction, Veerkamp and R.A. Nemetz were the three companies who cleared the Mill Creek Slide.

Oller also presented Loben Sels with a special plaque, complete with a toy plow truck mounted on it, that read: “‘Landslide Busters.’ To James van Loben Sels for his work in opening Highway 50.”

In a similar gesture, Davis, council member Judy Brown and other South Shore dignitaries brought a 100-pound, 50-inch wide symbolic mud pie to the occasion, which Gov. Wilson sliced with a shovel.

Phil Weidinger of Weidinger Public Relations said the dessert, donated by Caesars Tahoe and garnished with toy construction equipment, contained 12 pounds of butter, 20 pounds of sugar, one gallon of eggs, 50 pounds of semi-sweet chocolate and 12 gallons of heavy whipping cream.

One observer said the enormous dessert probably contained as many calories as dollars were lost in South Lake Tahoe as a result of the highway closures.

Still, that did not stop construction workers from digging in.

Contractors worked 24 hours a day, sometimes more than 12 hours at a time, to remove the 300,000 cubic yards of mud that crashed onto the roadway near White Hall on Jan. 24.

While they appreciated all of the praise the received Friday, most were more grateful to be getting on with their lives.

“Tonight I’m going to stay in my own bed for the first time in a month,” said Caltrans worker Mike Rosa. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

But amid all of this rejoicing was a feeling that this could not continue to be a monthly occurrence.

“All I can say is we have to stop meeting this way,” Davis joked.

John Upton, El Dorado County supervisor, stressed that everyone who is dependent on the highway needs to start working on some long-term solutions.

He suggested constructing a network of retaining walls along unstable slope areas rather than a rerouting of the highway, which he said would likely be too expensive.

“I’m going to advocate the voluntary closing of the road when this ski season is over so we can get some work done before the summer,” Upton said. “We can’t risk this happening again on a Sunday afternoon when there is a line of cars, that’s intolerable. We need to come to a solution to this problem.”

The most recent mudslide came just one week after the highway surface was repaired from being washed out by the New Year’s Day floods. Before that, a record December snowstorm left South Lake Tahoe marooned for three days.


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