Toll Away

CHP officials tried and failed to locate a vandalism suspect who’d painted this message in July at Bixby Bridge, a chokepoint on Highway 1.

At seemingly every public meeting in Big Sur, and particularly after crowded weekends, someone pops the question: Can’t we just turn Highway 1 into a toll road to stem the influx of visitors and raise money for services?

The short answer, according to Bill Craven, consultant for the California Senate Natural Resources Committee, is no. State law doesn’t allow tolls on roads that provide the primary access to a region. Plus, taxpayers have already paid for the highway and can’t be charged for it a second time, he adds. Then, there’s the Coastal Commission, which would likely block measures to restrict access.

The longer answer is something that Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur, is trying to figure out. “We just can’t keep doing this,” he says. “Overtourism is damaging a resource and threatening the public’s health and safety. Not doing something is not an option.”

In his hunt for the right something, Kronlund found someone he thinks can help. Costas Christ is a global expert in the growing field of sustainable tourism. The nonprofit hired Christ for $178,000, with $150,000 of that coming from Monterey County.

Christ and his employees at Beyond Green Travel have been spending about a week in Big Sur every month since August and plan to continue through the spring.

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They are gathering information on the problem: “I have traveled up in the ridges and witnessed hikers who were lost and who had started fires,” Christ says. The work involves meeting with community members, businesses and officials at every level of government.

“There are polarized views in the community,” he says. “That wasn’t a surprise.”

By May, Christ will synthesize everything he has heard into recommendations that will be released as a draft and circulated until a final version is completed by the end of June. The idea is that by then, enough stakeholders will be engaged and implementation could follow.

“Very rarely does any particular stakeholder get exactly what they want but success is found where people can live with compromise in the name of the greater good,” Christ says, pointing to his work in places like the west coast of Ireland, Bhutan and Bar Harbor, Maine.

Kronlund would like to see more public restrooms, cars replaced with public transit and the highway widened for bikes and pedestrians. He’d also like to see people trained as hosts stationed at flashpoints like Bixby Bridge to nudge visitors toward better behavior. Meanwhile, he’s working on “low-hanging fruit:” the purchase of devices to count how many cars pass through.

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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