Uphill Battle: How Santa Monica is Rebuilding the California Incline
In short, it’s all about securing the bluff and building a bridge that can stand without it
Story by Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki
High above Pacific Coast Highway just north of the Santa Monica Pier, construction workers grapple with heavy equipment to drill deep but narrow holes into the face of the picturesque bluff that separates Palisades Park from the sea.
These tiny shafts run for as long as 75 feet under Palisades Park and contain inch-thick tension-resisting steel rods — at least 10,000 of them — intended to secure the cliff for years to come, said Jeff McDermott, project manager for the effort to rebuild Santa Monica’s iconic California Incline.
It’s a technique called soil nailing. In addition to building an entirely new roadway bridge supported independently from the bluff, it is essential to the $20-million seismic stabilization of the 1,400-foot-long connector between
Ocean Avenue and PCH.
That’s as much as $14,285 per foot of length (about 90% of it paid for through the federal Highway Bridge Program), but this will be busy pavement: As many as 15,000 vehicles per day traveled the California Incline before the previous structure’s demolition in April.
The 12- to 13-month project is scheduled for completion in April or May and so far is right on schedule, said McDermott. He and his crew work for MCM Construction, a highway and bridge contractor who won a competitive bid for the job in January.
“Although I’m grateful the necessary rebuilding of the incline has resulted in less traffic disruption than many had feared, it remains an indispensable connection between Pacific Coast Highway stretching north and the megalopolis of Los Angeles, for which Santa Monica serves as gateway,” said Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown.
The new California Incline will preserve many of the same aesthetic traits as its 1930-built predecessor, but at 52 feet across it will gain five feet and eight inches of width. That’s enough to maintain the pre-existing three lanes of traffic as well as accommodate a wider scenic sidewalk and bicycle lane area that’s separated from vehicular traffic by a concrete barrier.
“There’s no doubt that with the new bicycle lanes it will become an attraction for road-hearty cyclists and the average cyclist,” said Cynthia Rose, director of the bicycle advocacy group Santa Monica Spoke. “This will allow people an easy, iconic way to get to the beach without going to the pier.”
A NEW LIFECYCLE
Before McDermott’s crew could rebuild the California Incline, they had to destroy it without disturbing the environmentally sensitive face of the bluff.
The incline itself was already slowly falling apart after 85 years of wear and tear since its last significant upgrade.
Residents and visitors have been making their way down that cliff for more than a century.
As early as the 1890s, the incline, known then as Sunset Trail, was simply a walking path cut into the hillside with no external support system. The path was widened in the early 1900s to accommodate early automobile traffic. At the time, railroad tracks ran along the coastline where PCH is today.
The California Incline bridge supports that existed until this spring were built in the early 1930s to fill in gaps caused by erosion of the bluff slope, according to city documents. By the time that pre-FDR structure was demolished, some of support footings were exposed and cracked.
“It had exposed, rusting rebar. It was built in the 1930s and had outlived its intended lifecycle. We got here just in time to give it a new one,” McDermott said.
MCM Construction Crews removed the old structure using a tool called a hoe ram, which functions sort of like a large jackhammer.
“We saw-cut the old bridge into manageable, one-inch pieces that could easily be taken away from the roadway and then broken down in the dirt,” McDermott said.
Workers are currently in the project’s second of three phases, the one McDermott says is the most complicated.
Using a high-speed boring drill, a 15-man crew drills the rebar soil nails into the side of the cliff, and they are grouted with cement to match the color of the bluff face. It can be painstaking work because of the angle of the bluffs, McDermott said.
“It’s vertical work, so sometimes it can get tricky. You have to make sure that the nails don’t collapse when you’re drilling them into the bluffs. So far none have, so that means it’s good soil,” he said.
There also isn’t much room to work.
“We’re working with a very small work area for a very big project,” said McDermott. “It’s like pouring 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound bag.”
Curtis Castle, the Santa Monica Public Works Departments incline project manager, said natural surface soil erosion from the bluffs is not considered a significant factor in the project, meaning no aesthetically disruptive soil nets or other shoring mechanisms are planned.
“The bluffs have been there for as long as the incline has been there. The project designers felt that there was no need to do anything other than what we’re already doing,” Curtis said.
A MILESTONE FIRST POUR
Separate from the soil nails is the construction of the bridge itself, which makes up more than half the length of the incline.
Construction of the first of three frames for the bridge began last week with about 100 concrete mixer trucks making the first pour of concrete over a stretch of more than 200 feet.
The new bridge will have a concrete deck nearly two feet thick and be supported by a series of 50- to 75-foot-tall pillars secured by post tension cables buried into the concrete deck.
The tension cables allow the deck to be thinner and limit cracking.
“Right now, we’re building the new bridge and installing the CIDH [cast in drilling hole] foundations for the structure. Before, it was part bridge, part asphalt-and-dirt. Now the bridge is going to be an individual unit that is separated from the bluff,” he said.
Because the bridge will not be built into the bluff as it had been in the 1930s, in the event of seismic activity “it would have to be a significant earthquake to do any dam- age” to the new bridge, McDermott said.
The final stage of construction, he said, will involve tying the top and bottom of the bridge to Ocean Avenue and PCH by laying asphalt paving to connect everything together.
A REGIONAL PRIORITY
Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference at the California Incline construction site on July 17 to tout the project as a vital transportation component for the region and prime example of the importance of federal infrastructure spending. Democrats were stumping for reauthorization of the federal Highway Trust Fund at the time.
“Completing the reconstruction of the incline will not only create better transportation access, but it will also make travel in the region much safer,” Liu said.
McKeown, also present during the press conference, says the California Incline is an emblematic Southern California roadway.
“My very first visit to Santa Monica, as I was exploring the California coast 44 years ago, took me up the incline and past the iconic neon sign on the pedestrian overpass,” he said.
McDermott said that aside from being safer and more seismically sound, the California Incline’s aesthetic value will remain solid.
“Once the incline is complete, it’s going to look very good,” he said.