Due to a series of incoming storms, Caltrans has temporarily suspended its $5 million tree removal project along highways 41 and 49, spokesman Cory Burkarth said Thursday, meaning drivers can expect clear roads for at least a week.
Leading up to Thursday, traffic was often backed up along both highways, sometimes for more than 15 minutes. That caused complete stoppage in areas like the intersection of both highways in the middle of Oakhurst.
Burkarth said Caltrans received several complaints related to those delays, and are meeting with contractor Sierra Mountain Construction of Tuolumne to review what changes can be made to help speed up the project.
“We’re going to go over what’s working, what isn’t, and what can be done differently,” Burkarth said. “We do understand the sensitivity of closing a road for around 10 to 15 minutes at a time.”
The project will be suspended until at least Thursday, Feb. 23, Burkarth said, maybe longer depending on the weather. With clear skies, crews are typically at work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Burkarth said though some drivers and commuters may be frustrated by the delays, they were “absolutely necessary” as crews have often had to cut down hazardous trees more than 100 feet in height.
“What happens is they are brought down into the road, then a lot of material comes off them onto the roadway and has to be cleaned up,” Burkarth said. “We’ve got more workers clearing the road than clearing the tree.”
At the latest count, available last month, Burkarth said more than 5,445 trees have been removed from the highways, typically over the Deadwood area on 41 and Ahwahnee area on 49. He said more than 14,770 trees were identified as hazardous as part of the project, which was initiated after an emergency declaration from Gov. Jerry Brown over California’s tree mortality crisis.
With favorable weather conditions, Burkarth said the work could be finished by early summer. He asked the public for their continued cooperation.
“We have such a large scope of work with so many trees we have to remove,” Burkarth said. “So part of this shared vision to improve safety in the area is a shared sacrifice between us and the public. These trees, we don’t call them dead trees, we call them hazardous trees because they pose a danger to everyone. And we need to get them out of there as soon as we can.”
So far, no major injuries have been reported and no vehicles have been damaged as part of the project, Burkarth said.
To help plan out commutes, Burkarth strongly encouraged drivers to visit quickmap.dot.ca.gov, a website that provide real-time updates on traffic conditions and possible delays on both computers and mobile devices. The public can also call 1-800-427-7623 for updates on highway conditions 24 hours a day, Burkarth said.
As always, drivers are asked to “slow for the cone zone” to keep the area safe for themselves and workers. Burkarth said Caltrans will continue work to remove hazardous trees from Mountain Area highways until funding is no longer available.