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Outrage grows over 25-mile backup on 10 Freeway

February 16, 2012 |  4:12 pm

Outrage continued to fester Thursday over massive delays on the 10 Freeway from a road construction project.

A routine California Department of Transportation road repair project gone awry backed up traffic for about 25 miles Sunday, forcing drivers to endure delays of five hours or more.

The situation was “intolerable and unacceptable,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Desert), who was outraged over the delays in communicating the extent of the epic traffic nightmare to the public.

On Thursday, Caltrans offered its most detailed account yet of what went wrong, saying a series of errors ranging from a delay in getting concrete shipments to removing too much worn pavement contributed to what it admits was “horrendous.”

But the explanations and repeated apologies from highway officials did little to calm the anger of thousands of motorists who had to wait. Several local politicians have demanded investigations, and Caltrans has transferred the engineer who oversaw the project.

The traffic was so bad that many drivers had no choice but to urinate on the side of the freeway or in bottles. Some people missed flights and important appointments.

Debra Hotaling, who was trying to get home to L.A. from a weekend in Palm Springs with her teenage daughter and a friend, said it was the worst traffic she’d ever seen. A trip that should take two hours lasted from about noon to 8 p.m.

Frantic to escape the freeway, motorists sped on the shoulders and nearby dirt roads, she said. One driver of a Camry simply shot off into the desert sage brush. Some people who ran out of gas on the freeway placed signs on their cars asking not to be towed.

Hotaling got off the freeway in Cabazon to stock up on food. It took her an hour and 15 minutes just to get back on. “Everyone was just so frustrated and angry,” she said.

Only a lucky few found a shortcut. Four people with connections to the music industry bailed from the 10 Freeway and chartered the last remaining charter flight out of the Palm Springs area, at a cost of $4,200, to make the Grammys in downtown L.A.

Denise Wilson, president of the charter plane company, Desert Jet, identified them only as executives at a major corporation, and said they landed at Santa Monica Airport then drove to the Grammys in downtown L.A.

 “Everyone here knows that the road is the lifeline to the L.A. Basin,” Wilson said.

The backup occurred at the worst possible time –- the Sunday westbound rush from desert resorts to L.A. -– and the most horrible spot: along the remote, narrow mountain pass that is a key connection point between Los Angeles and Palm Springs to Arizona.


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-- Rong-Gong Lin II and Sam Allen