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Baja Road Sinks, Nearly Falls into Sea

Thursday, January 9, 2014

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A busy coastal road in Mexico has collapsed, dropping by nearly 300 feet in some areas and threatening to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

A 200-foot section of the four-lane toll road, Federal Highway 1D, collapsed Dec. 28 about 56 miles from the United States border, in the Mexican state of Baja California, between the towns of Tijuana and Ensenada.

Drivers started reporting tiny fractures and some sinking in the area after a 4.6-magnitude earthquake shook the area on Dec. 19. The quake was centered about 60 miles southeast of Ensenada, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Tijuana-Ensenada Scenic Road
Facebook / Baja California Civil Protection Services

The Mexican toll road collapsed Dec. 28, tossing a cement truck into the Pacific Ocean. No one was injured.

Amazingly, no one was injured, probably because the collapse happened about 2:30 a.m. PT when traffic was minimal.

The driver of a cement truck narrowly escaped injury by abandoning his truck when the asphalt started shifting. He then watched the truck tumble into the sea as the road slid down the cliffside.

Now, Mexico's Federal Roads and Bridges agency (called Capufe) is being criticized for not closing the road earlier.

Problem Area

The country's Communications and Transportation Ministry issued a press release on Sunday (Jan. 5), stating that the highway slide was accelerated by several earthquakes and heavy rains.

Because the highway was built in a geological fault area, it has seen "significant disruption and landslides," the ministry said.

Several reports, however, disputed whether the earthquake and landslide were directly correlated. Critics said the road was built in an unstable area about 45 years ago and has always been in danger of collapsing.

This video, by Frontera Ensenada, shows how far the Mexican toll road dropped and how close it is to sinking into the Pacific Ocean.

The road, also known as the Tijuana-Ensenada Scenic Road, was built in the 1960s to drive tourism. Built on top of a cliff that drops several hundred feet into the Pacific Ocean, the drive offers breathtaking views.

The highway also offers a direct route to farms, cities and factories that are part of a major U.S.-Mexico trade area. Additionally, Ensenada is home to the third-busiest cruise ship terminal in Mexico and is a gateway to the rest of Baja's coastal attractions, such as popular surfing locations.

Officials have now closed the highway, forcing travelers to take a 30-mile-long alternate route through the countryside.

Repair Time Uncertain

Officials are saying it could take up to a year to repair the road. However, U-T San Diego reported Jan. 3 that the road could be reopened by this summer, citing an official with the state government.

"We hope the reopening can be done reasonably quickly, once all safety concerns are met," Ives Lelevier, Baja Assistant Secretary of Tourism, said in a press release.

Lelevier said officials were trying to determine the cause of the collapse. On Jan. 2, Capufe built a ramp to allow machinery and engineers to observe the site, Televisa reported.

Baja Civil Protection Services
Facebook / Baja California Civil Protection Services

"Very frankly, that road should have never been built," a San Diego geologist said.

"... [W]e will be working aggressively to reopen the Scenic Road section now closed to minimize any inconvenience," Lelevier said.

Finger Pointing

Ensenada Mayor Gilberto Hirata said Capufe should have closed the highway earlier. He cited reports of serious faults posted on social media sites since the Dec. 19 earthquake and the urging of state officials, according to U-T San Diego.

Hirata said that cracks and sinkholes had been forming for days, and that only through sheer luck had fatalities been avoided.

Hirata said he was talking with federal and state authorities about building an alternate road or replacing the highway with a bridge, U-T San Diego reported.

The private sector warned Capufe last year that the stretch of road was unstable, calling for a complete closure and restructuring of the road. The group suggested a whole new infrastructure plan, such as replacing the highway with a suspension bridge or tunnels, or building a road more inland from the coastal cliff area, reported.

The Day Before

On Dec. 27, the day before the road completely collapsed, local media outlets reported that part of the road in the same area (at kilometer 93) sank more than 30 inches, causing two-hour traffic delays.

To remedy the situation and ensure safety "specifically at kilometer 93," Capufe and the Transportation Ministry had agreed to a series of preventive actions and reinforcement of asphalt in the area.

Facebook / Alvaro Diaz via

This photo, taken Dec. 27, shows part of the road already sinking, forcing lane closure and traffic delays. Less than 24 hours later, the section of highway dropped almost 300 feet.

The agencies decided to reduce traffic to one lane in each direction, but called the road's condition somewhat normal, reported Dec. 27.

Capufe authorities have denied any negligence in not closing the road earlier, telling media outlets that the incident was not a surprise.

Capufe also took to Twitter, stating several times that its closure of the highway and actions of civil protection had prevented incidents on the highway. Responses poured in, with some stating (translated), "That stretch was a tragedy foretold" and "The closure should have been before. Fortunately the collapse occurred when there was no traffic and the driver of the trailer was uninjured."

Geologists Weigh In

Geologists have reportedly said that the land around the road is highly unstable, but that the Mexican government built the road anyway to attract tourism, according to KPBS Radio News.

San Diego State University Geologist Pat Abbott told U-T San Diego that the road had long been considered unstable and that gravity was the main factor in its collapse. "Very frankly, that road should have never been built," Abbott said.

After the collapse, the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education of Ensenada released a report outlining 15 years of research into landslide risks in the area.

The center noted that the road was built primarily to accomodate tourism, and its "main use was far from heavy transport." The vehicle caught in the slide was a "double trailer truck carrying cement and whose weight exceeded 35 tons," the report says.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Infrastructure; Roads/Highways

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