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Caltrans slammed after roadwork causes 25-mile backup

February 17, 2012 |  8:56 am

Interstate 10 traffic mess

State road officials are coming under fire from politicians and drivers from a disastrous road repair project on the 10 Freeway that jammed traffic west of Palm Springs for much of Sunday.

The Caltrans project backed up traffic for about 25 miles Sunday, forcing drivers to endure delays of five hours or more and sparking a furious political backlash that has put Caltrans on the defensive.

On Thursday, Caltrans offered its most detailed account yet of what went wrong, saying that a series of errors ranging from a delay in getting concrete shipments to removing too much worn pavement contributed to what they admit was a "horrible situation."

State Assemblyman Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley), was headed east on Interstate 10 Sunday afternoon when he saw the massive bottleneck on the westbound side of the road. He said he was “shocked” by the traffic levels on the freeway.

“It was really, really bad,” Cook said. “You just kept driving and driving the traffic was backed up all the way. The real problem is that this is an area where there is no real alternative … you can’t get off and take a side street.”

Cook said it was clear that officials planning construction had “dropped the ball.” He said he was in discussions with Caltrans about how to prevent a repeat of the problem, and is also advocating for a new “support road” from Morongo Casino in Cabazon to the city of Banning.

“I’m not going to beat up people … I just hope we can get to the bottom of it and take corrective action,” he said. “This is what can happen when one small thing goes wrong.”

Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez (D-Indio) was more critical, saying the jam was a “screw-up” by Caltrans, and calling the situation “terrible and deplorable.”

He too witnessed the gridlock from the eastbound side of the road while on his way home from San Diego.                                

“I was amazed how long it was, it just kept going and going and going,” Perez said. “I couldn’t understand why Caltrans was working on a Sunday in the middle of the day … knowing that’s a day when many families travel in and out of the Coachella Valley.

Perez said he also supports expanding surface roads in the area to give motorists the option to bypass the freeway.

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 had ever seen. A trip that should have taken 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. 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 an alternative. Four people with connections to the music industry bailed from the 10 Freeway and chartered the last remaining plane 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 owners of a major corporation, and said they landed at Santa Monica Airport and then headed to the Grammys at Staples Center.

"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 and Arizona.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II and Sam Allen

Photo: Westbound traffic crawls on a frontage road next to Interstate 10 east of Cabazon on Sunday. Cars were backed up on the interstate for miles. Credit: Guy McCarthy / Banning-Beaumont Patch

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