Following a 4.6 magnitude earthquake on December 19th, a 900-foot-long chunk of toll road in Baja plummeted toward the sea. The road that once connected Tijuana with Ensenada collapsed ten days later. Fortunately there were no injuries, but the frightening “what-ifs” that continue to play out have highlighted the concerns of geologists, civil engineers and frequent travelers along this particular stretch of toll road near Kilometer 93. Those familiar with this portion of road all seem to share the same sentiment: it was only a matter of time.
As noted in a review conducted by The Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE) shortly after the toll road collapse, the initial projections and design of the toll road took place in the 1960s when traffic numbers and average vehicle weights were much lower than they are today. As he mentioned in a KPBS article earlier this month, CICESE geologist Luis Delgado initially said, “the highway was designed for tourism, basically.” Today, however, the toll road not only caters to tourists en route to Ensenada and towns further south, but also to tractors and other heavy commercial vehicles that ultimately pushed the portion of road around KM93 to its breaking point.
The big question surrounding the road collapse has been: was it preventable? Fellow CICESE geologist Luis H. Mendoza Garcilazo believes the answer to that question lies in further geological research. “This phenomenon known as mass movement or slippage of land (landslides) can be prevented to the extent that resources are invested in research and field studies (geophysics, geology, seismology).”
WiLDCOAST Coastal and Marine Director Zachary Plopper, however, feels that the toll road collapse was inevitable. “That section of coast has been sliding into the ocean for decades, if not longer. Tectonically and geologically, it was a poor place for a road. As a matter of fact, I heard (I was in Ensenada when it fell) that the original engineer on the project (early ’70s) walked off the job. Mexico’s Federal Roads and Bridges agency (CAPUFE) and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT) have been working on that section of the road obsessively over the past few years and intensively as of late (before the collapse). The day it fell, I drove through there and it had already cracked, leaving about a three foot drop that authorities simply paved over, creating a steep ramp. There were hundreds of cars idling on the section that fell, waiting to pass. It is incredible the timing of the collapse when no one was on it (except for the one truck). The road should have been closed years ago in my opinion.”
So, how will the toll road collapse affect traveling surfers looking to score waves at the consistent right points in the Salsipuedes and San Miguel areas? For now, travelers along the toll road are being detoured to the free road located a bit more inland from the coast, making access to some surf spots in the area more difficult but not impossible. Rebuilding plans and timelines for the re-opening of the toll are fuzzy at best, with most experts agreeing that nothing can be done until after the rainy season ends.
In Garcilazo’s opinion, the key to reconstruction lies in additional research of the area. “The reconstruction decision should be based on post-collapse structural and geological site conditions. Again, the recommendation is that you must first invest time and resources in studies to understand the new dynamics and evaluate it based on the cost versus the benefit of choosing reconstruction engineering.”
Plopper thinks that the toll road will never be passable again. “I don’t think any feasible coastal armoring project is possible to rebuild the road. The cliffs are just too erosive.”
The silver lining in all of this, aside from the fact that no one was seriously injured, is that the toll road collapse may actually have a positive impact on the local environment and wildlife. “The coastline between Baja Mar and San Miguel supports some of the least disturbed coastal sage scrub in the Californias,” says Plopper. “If the road truly is detoured, that would obviously mean less traffic and less disturbance to the surrounding terrain and wildlife.”
Even if the toll is never repaired and traveling surfers have to drive a little longer to get to some of the surf breaks in the area, Plopper urges us to focus on the potential preservation of the region’s natural beauty and the fact that we were able to enjoy it for a period of time. “If in fact the road is abandoned, we can be appreciative that we got to experience those sweeping coastal views and beauty of that drive while it lasted. But who knows, maybe CAPUFE and SCT will build the world’s largest seawall.”