by Mark Sedenquist
Almost immediately after the flood waters subsided, a coalition of engineers and resource specialists from the national park service, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Nevada Paving Corporation, and an alliance of private and governmental agencies began the time-consuming process of finding a way to work together and rebuild the damaged highway in a manner that would protect the natural resources and still restore this badly needed road as quickly as possible. According to Tom Hallenbeck, the district director for Caltrans in charge of this project, an emergency declaration by California's governor enabled them to reopen this road within months -- years faster than would normally be possible in today's permit-intensive road construction climate.
The road was opened to the public on April 29, 2005, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by many of the contractors and national park service employees who worked on the project over the last eight months. Nearly thirteen miles were reconstructed and over three miles of rock-filled wire cages were constructed to help protect the road against further erosion and the floods that will without a doubt return someday. The cost of this labor-intensive project, which is still not quite complete, is expected to exceed $10 million.
Reflecting the spirit of cooperation among agencies the project required, J.T Reynolds, the Superintendent of Death Valley National Park, pledged his commitment to continue to find the ways and means to protect and enhance the park. Noted local singer-guitarist Phyllis Nefsky led the entire group in customized versions of well-known road songs like "On the Road Again," "King of the Road," and "Take Me Home Desert Road." Furnace Creek Inn manager Toni Jepson provided food and refreshingly cold drinking water -- temperatures in Death Valley are already high by the end of April -- for all attendees. This included two dozen or so tourists who just happened to arrive during the ceremony, little realizing what an historic event they were witnessing. The climax of the ceremony was, of course, the ribbon cutting itself, achieved with a pair of oversized scissors painted Day-Glo orange. With that, the road was open, and an eager group of motorcyclists roared past as soon as the last barricade was moved aside.
Because construction is still not quite complete, a pilot car will be taking caravans of vehicles through the one-lane construction areas for the next few weeks. We waited about 35 minutes for our turn. As we drove along the familiar route, it was amazing to see how many repairs had been necessary, and to note the innovative techniques that have been employed to resist erosion. It will be interesting to see how long Mother Nature lets this "new & improved" road stay in place.