A cure for road rage: close road

Times Staff Writers

It started last year when Caltrans began widening California 138, a main east-west route in Southern California’s fast-growing high desert region.

Motorists angry at construction delays threatened road workers and damaged equipment. Also, flagmen have been attacked in what officials describe as bizarre incidents of road rage. Two workers were hit by cars and a third was shot with a BB gun.

Now in an unprecedented response to ill will, Caltrans has announced it will close a portion of the highway beginning Monday to complete the project.


California 138 connects two of Southern California’s fastest-growing areas -- the Antelope Valley communities of Palmdale and Lancaster and Inland Empire’s high desert region. But the rural highway has become a major commuter route, and that has caused problems.

“This is growing pains,” said Dennis Green, a Caltrans consultant on the $44-million widening project. “People here are not used to having congestion like they had in Los Angeles. It’s here now, and they’re having to learn how to cope with it.”

The highway project is a modest attempt to improve safety on the mostly two-lane route long known by locals as “Blood Alley” and “California Deathway” because of the number of accidents.

For years, officials have talked about turning it into a full-fledged freeway, but the funding has never been available. A slew of new subdivisions in north Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire is prompting the latest push for a better road, perhaps a toll road connecting Palmdale and Victorville.

“There’s going to be tremendous growth in the future,” said Brian Lin, transportation planning manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Agency. “Right now, it’s not too bad, but if there’s construction that blocks a road, then you run into problems.”

Road crews had no idea what they were in for when work began on the 138.

Flagmen working for contractor Skanska Inc. were soon targeted as tempers began to flare.

They were cursed at and had objects, including a burrito, flung at them. Other workers’ equipment was sabotaged.

One motorist threatened to climb a water tower and shoot workers with a high-powered rifle, said Terri Kasinga, a Caltrans spokeswoman.

For a while, the situation improved amid broad community support for the improvements. But since last fall, three workers have been physically attacked or otherwise harmed by motorists.

In the first incident, last September, a driver refused to stop when he approached a flagging operation at the intersection of 138 and California 2 heading toward Wrightwood

“He drove through the job site, going in and around equipment and workers,” Kasinga said. “Other flagmen told him he wasn’t permitted through and he said, ‘I’m not waiting. I’m not going back,’ and just floored it.”

A flagman was struck and needed minor surgery for one of his legs. The driver was arrested.

In late November, on the 138 at the landmark known as Mormon Rock, an elderly woman in a van drove through the site, striking another flagman and breaking his back. It’s unclear if she was angry or disoriented, Kasinga said.

“She ran into him, threw him up in the air and pinned him on the side of a hill,” Kasinga said. “He was airlifted.... He’s still out of work. He’s got broken vertebrae in his back.”

Earlier this year, a flagman was stopping traffic when a van pulled up and then drove through without permission.

“The flagman felt a sting on his leg,” Kasinga said. “He had been shot by a BB gun.”

Kasinga said that incident prompted Caltrans’ decision to close about three miles of the highway until Sept. 11. Cars will be detoured around the closed section -- near California 2 and Hess Road -- affecting not just daily commuters but those who use the 138 as a shortcut to Las Vegas.

Workers see the closure as perhaps the only way to ensure their safety. Officials considered keeping the road open with CHP escorts but decided the only way to prevent more attacks was to close it completely.

“People think of it as their road,” said Mike Hayes, a Caltrans surveyor who works along California 138. “Now they have a detour. But people still want to go 65, and they don’t have a lot of patience. They don’t like it when you cut their route off.”

The highway was built at a time when the high desert population was sparse.

But now, the road connects two fast-growing exurbs: the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County and the Victorville/Hesperia area of San Bernardino County.

Life in the high desert is a trade-off: affordable housing but tough commutes. But it’s a trade-off a growing number of people are willing to make.

Estimates from the Southern California Assn. of Governments predict the Antelope Valley will see its population jump from 288,000 to 537,000 in 20 years. Victorville and surrounding communities are expected to grow from 237,000 to 398,000 over the same period, according to SCAG.

And that doesn’t count the huge 60,000-home Centennial development planned for near the 138’s terminus at Interstate 5.

There is general agreement that the long-term solution is an east-west high desert freeway.

But with no funds on the horizon, some have proposed the controversial idea of having a private entity build a Palmdale-to-Victorville toll road, at a likely price of $1 billion or more.

Local leaders say something -- either public or private -- needs to be done.

“If we don’t invest in these places now, it’s only going to be more expensive in the future,” said state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster). “We have to do planning now, because this is where people are going to move to in the future.”

For now, the roadwork is more modest.

Caltrans hopes to add 8-foot shoulders, a 4-foot median and two lanes to portions of the 138. Some of the work on the L.A. County stretch of the road has been completed. CHP Lt. Andria Witmer said the number of fatal crashes has gone down there, and that the wider stretches are safer.

Area residents generally agree that the improvements are necessary but say the roadwork can be trying in a place with fewer people and cars than the L.A. Basin -- and fewer alternative routes.

“I’ve had quite a few tales of frustration,” said Mike Clayton, 44, of Pinon Hills, who said his driving time has tripled. “But I would have wanted to write an angry letter, not run over someone’s foot.”

Geun Yi, former manager of the Mountain Top Cafe at the intersection of the 138 and 2 highways, said his business suffered as the number of customers stopping at the roadside restaurant trickled to only a few each day.

“My restaurant has been turned into a construction site,” Yi said.

Last month, the cafe closed its doors for good.

Though he blamed the construction for the loss of the cafe, Yi reluctantly conceded that “widening the road has to be done. I am not against that. So many people have died on this road.”



Begin text of infobox

Coping with high desert traffic

Caltrans is widening California 138 to accommodate traffic in the high desert regions of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, some of the fastest-growing areas in California.

Population projections

*--* 2005 2025 Palmdale 145,995 299,324 Lancaster 142,043 238,048 Victorville 64,871 113,711 Apple Valley 63,453 89,815 Hesperia 62,835 159,638 Adelanto 21,888 39,832



Source: Southern California Assn. of Governments