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Red Tape Snarls Widening of 'Blood Alley'

February 21, 2000|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT and RAY F. HERNDON | 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.

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