Red Tape Snarls Widening of 'Blood Alley'

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For San Fernando Valley vacationers bound for Las Vegas or aerospace workers commuting to the burgeoning aerospace industry around Palmdale, Pearblossom Highway offers dangers practically from start to finish, making it the deadliest highway in Los Angeles County.

Now, a much delayed project to expand the flawed High Desert route from its deadly two lanes to four will stop six miles short of the San Bernardino County line, leaving an even bloodier and more accident-strewn section of the highway unimproved.

At the heart of the delay is the slow pace of the many layers of state and county bureaucracies in a region notorious for its confusing array of government agencies.

A Times computer analysis has shown the deadly nature of the highway, which crosses the county line.

Counting accidents in both counties over a five-year period, 56 people died and 875 were injured--410 of them seriously--along the 38-mile stretch of California 138 known by locals as the "Highway of Death," "California Deathway" or simply "Blood Alley," the computer analysis shows.

As stark as the fatality and injury statistics are for that segment of the route--from Avenue T in Palmdale to Interstate 15--they are not driving the debate over the widening plans. When it comes to financing expensive road expansion projects, the reality is that decisions are more heavily influenced by local politics, regional power plays and the inexorably slow processes of the California Department of Transportation. This project is no exception.

In a political arena where power counts and heavily populated urban centers get the lion's share of highway construction dollars, the High Desert almost defines powerlessness.

Lack of Political Clout

If the urban sprawl of the five-county Greater Los Angeles region is viewed as a series of rings spreading out from downtown and extending into Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, California 138 would be on one of the outer circles.

The route cuts through small communities such as Littlerock, Pearblossom and Llano in Los Angeles County and Pinon Hills and Phelan in San Bernardino County before reaching Interstate 15 at Cajon Junction.

Even basic government services that city dwellers take for granted often pose problems in this lightly populated region. Just miles off the highway, some residents have their water trucked in. Some use wind turbines to generate their own electricity. It is estimated that there are 800 to 900 miles of unpaved roads in the Phelan area.

Just about the only thing big league about the region is the high death and accident rate.

To determine how the Los Angeles County portion of the deadly highway compares with other local routes with high accident rates--such as Interstate 5, Pacific Coast Highway and the Antelope Valley Freeway--The Times fed state accident and injury data into a computer, along with the most recent state figures for traffic volumes. Other highways in Los Angeles County had a higher rate of accidents per vehicle, but none had as many fatalities per vehicle.

And the accident, fatality and injury rates on the San Bernardino County segment were all higher than those on the Los Angeles County side.

Based on the most recent five years of accident report data compiled by the CHP, a motorist's chance of getting involved in a fatal or injury accident are 34% greater on the San Bernardino County segment of California 138. The chance of getting killed or injured on that stretch between the county line and I-15 are, respectively, 17% and 48% greater than on the L.A. County segment.

Though the high death and accident rate has galvanized state and local political leaders and stirred local passions for decades, getting a green light on spending the $150 million necessary to widen the route in both counties has proved difficult and immensely frustrating for residents.

At each step, the project has faced hurdles presented by the complex Caltrans highway planning process, by the greater political priorities given to such projects as freeway expansion, sound walls and more carpool lanes in both counties, and by a grindingly slow state highway construction schedule.

Actually, at one point during the early 1990s, the Pearblossom Highway widening project was moving to the top of Caltrans' priority list. But then came the Northridge earthquake, and the collapse of portions of the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, both of which feed into Palmdale and Lancaster. Highway dollars were poured into efforts to rebuild those freeways. The Antelope Valley benefited in that the collapsed highway system pushed forward Metrolink commuter rail service into Palmdale and Lancaster. But funding for the Pearblossom Highway widening was pushed back.

Even now, hundreds of millions of dollars in highway projects are on the Caltrans planning lists ahead of California 138.

One problem is that Los Angeles County is in Caltrans District 7 and San Bernardino County is in Caltrans District 8. Both districts have a high degree of autonomy in approving projects, conducting environmental impact reports and deciding which projects to put at the top of long-range construction plans, called the State Transportation Improvements Program.

Another layer of bureaucracy consists of local government agencies, whose approval is necessary for construction.

Tad Teferi, the Caltrans project engineer supervising the Pearblossom Highway project in Los Angeles County, said that when the original studies were done "the traffic projections didn't warrant an extension" of the widening to San Bernardino County.

Teferi said that once the decision was made to go forward with the project in Los Angeles County, "we would have had to start the process all over again" if Caltrans had wanted to extend the widening past the county line.

Plans call for the eventual widening of the 15 miles of California 138 from the county line to I-15.

But this must compete with projects favored by more populous regions of San Bernardino County, which have more political clout than the desert towns. So construction on the project might not even begin until 2006, if then.

"Widening the highway on the Los Angeles County side and then stopping [before] the San Bernardino County line will be a little like turning on a fire hose and trying to funnel the flow into a garden hose," said Charlie Johnson, a resident of Phelan and co-chairman of a special California 138 safety committee composed of community leaders from both counties.

Leaders of San Bernardino County's big communities, such as the city of San Bernardino, say there is not enough money to hurry along the widening project.

But, actually, the county has been allocated more than $300 million under the 1998 State Transportation Improvements Program, considered the bible by construction engineers.

However, the urban politicians, who represent most of the population, favor projects that would help their constituents who commute daily into Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. They back extension of the Foothill Freeway from Los Angeles County, a truck passing lane on Interstate 215 and widening of portions of Interstates 10 and 15.

"All the money to build roads goes down to San Bernardino," said Phelan resident Johnson. "Our little population doesn't have enough clout to sneeze at."

Reducing the Waiting Time

Some key players in the debate say conditions on California 138 are so dangerous that even speeding up construction schedules a few months would probably prevent some deaths.

"Working together, we may be able to reduce the waiting time by several months or hopefully even years to begin this much-needed widening project. Who knows how many lives we may save by doing so?" said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), complaining to Teferi in a letter about delays in the widening project.

"The highway is a killer," said Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts. A member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's governing board, Roberts is a powerful player in local transit politics. But he is frustrated over dealing with Caltrans.

Roberts and other elected officials in Los Angeles County said they got a jolt recently when Caltrans announced that construction on the expansion project would begin in 2003 and not next year, as they had hoped. Caltrans said it must acquire nearly 500 parcels of land, move two post offices, conduct hearings and complete environmental reviews. The agency said it was moving as fast as it could.

"We thought we had it programmed so that in less than a year or so Caltrans would start the widening," Roberts said.

He and other elected officials called a "summit" meeting, inviting Caltrans engineers and top officials, hoping to pressure the state agency.

Caltrans said its construction schedule had not changed. Roberts left the meeting frustrated: "They said this was always the plan. We don't think so. But what are you going to do?"

Temporary Improvements

In the meantime, Caltrans has been restriping the highway, adding warning signs and in some cases putting up special hazard lights to improve conditions in both counties. Particularly bad stretches have gotten passing lanes, and several dangerous intersections in both counties have been rebuilt.

The California Highway Patrol, under a special grant, has mounted an intensive safety effort on the highway in both counties.

After getting the route declared a special safety corridor, the CHP got extra money for overtime pay, computers and the use of an airplane to track motorists speeding or making unsafe lane changes. The Legislature also passed a bill declaring the highway a double fine zone. The CHP issued 7,900 citations along the route, significantly more than in prior years, during the first year of the special safety project, and officers believe that they have been having an impact.

There were only two deaths during 1999 on the safety corridor, the CHP said. But 2000 got off to an ominous start when three days into the new year, a 45-year-old Lancaster man died after his pickup crossed the center line and collided with an oncoming big-rig. A few days later, a Llano man died and four young adults from Orange County were badly injured in a collision.

Many local leaders, while praising the CHP efforts, believe that only a widening of the highway from two to four lanes will be truly effective.

Meanwhile, many locals continue to consider travel on the route risky.

Because it is a rural highway serving a growing urban population, long lines of cars and trucks quickly form behind plodding RVs and beat-up pickups on the route, where for long stretches the only way to pass is to get in the path of oncoming traffic.

Adding to the danger are undulations in the road surface so pronounced that oncoming traffic often disappears in dips, creating blind driving conditions. Fittingly enough, locals call the undulations "whoop-de-doos," which is what they feel like at high speeds.

Until the highway is widened, local residents say they will try to avoid it.

Dramatic Growth in Desert Areas

A celebrated artwork by the British artist David Hockney, titled "Pearblossom Highway," captures the essence of the highway and has made it famous beyond California. In the color photomontage, Hockney documents a terrain dotted by Joshua trees and littered by discarded beer cans, food wrappers, and also manages to capture the highway's blurring speeds.

With Palmdale and Lancaster experiencing dramatic growth fueled by home prices astonishingly low compared to elsewhere in the county, many commuters face a choice between the dangers of Pearblossom Highway on one hand and the fast and also dangerous Antelope Valley Freeway on the other.

Marcial Gutierrez, 44, is a Compton machine shop owner who moved his family out of South-Central Los Angeles to a new four-bedroom $145,000 home in Palmdale 14 months ago. He said he decided to commute over a mountain road, the Angeles Forest Highway, rather than face the Antelope Valley Freeway. Although he and his wife survived a head-on collision recently on the Angeles route, he considers the freeway riskier.

He lives near the corner of Pearblossom Highway and 30th Street, and said California 138 is even worse than the Antelope Valley Freeway.

"That is dangerous," he said. "You can't believe how dangerous that is."

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Desert Road

A celebrated artwork by British artist David Hockney, the photo-montage "Pearblossom Highway" captures the essence of the desolate highway and has made it famous beyond Califronia

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