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Massive traffic jam on 10 Freeway becomes Caltrans scandal

Even in a region where gridlock is a daily fact of life, what happened Sunday on the 10 Freeway west of Palm Springs has morphed from traffic jam to full-fledged scandal.

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 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."

But the explanations and repeated apologies from road officials did little to calm the anger of thousands of motorists who had to wait. Several area 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 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.

It all started with what should have been routine overnight road construction — tearing up worn slabs of concrete on the 10 Freeway and replacing them with fresh pavement.

The first problem was that Caltrans staff failed to inform the agency's public information office that roadwork was planned for that night, Caltrans spokeswoman Michelle Profant said.

The concrete slabs were being replaced on a roughly three-mile stretch of the westbound 10 in Banning, which is about 25 miles west of Palm Springs.

After most of the lanes closed Saturday at 10 p.m., workers tore up more of the road than they could replace on time.

That would have been enough of a problem. But then officials learned that a computer issue at a concrete plant in Cabazon had idled production.

"Nobody knew that there wasn't going to be any concrete" when the freeway was torn up, Profant said.

Without new concrete to patch the road, a one-foot-deep gouge was left.

By this point officials knew that major delays would occur Sunday morning. But for reasons that are unclear, they failed to notify Caltrans public affairs, so no warning was issued early.

Eventually, traffic began to back up. Motorists were already trapped on the road before the first public warnings were issued. Exits are few in the San Gorgonio Pass, so many motorists were simply stuck. By the time the concrete had been loaded into the trucks, "they were caught in the traffic too," Profant said.

The botched construction job meant that three of the four westbound lanes of the 10 were closed to traffic, although crews were able to open up one more lane at some point, Profant said.

Instead of opening the road at 7 a.m. Sunday, all westbound lanes opened at 9:30 p.m.

Motorists who were stuck in the traffic called it the nastiest driving experience in their memories.

Desperate for open road, Dana Ward, a television producer from L.A., and her boyfriend took a circuitous route into the San Bernardino Mountains, circling Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. It was a 7-hour trip.

"It was the worst traffic I've ever been in my life," Ward said.

Jim and Nancy Redmond, of Orange County, stayed on the 10, and it took them four hours to travel 12 miles.

"The whole time, we were very concerned it was an accident," Nancy Redmond said. "You can imagine our disgust and anger when we saw that it was just roadwork."

There were no police around, cellphone reception was spotty and there were few rest stops, she said.

"I've driven in California for lots of years, and I've never been in anything like this, anywhere," said Jim Redmond.

ron.lin@latimes.com

sam.allen@latimes.com

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