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Mountain Road Upgrade Sparks Driver Rebellion

Work on Highway 138 is disrupting lives and has triggered threats against those doing the job.

July 12, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

High in the San Gabriel Mountains where treacherous Highway 138 snakes from Interstate 15 toward Palmdale, road rage is rising to a new level.

The locals call the route the "highway of death" because of the many deadly accidents that happen when drivers try to speed past slow trucks on the steep road.

So when the California Department of Transportation finally began safety improvements this summer and closed a section of road between the Wrightwood area and Phelan, construction workers got a response they didn't expect: death threats and sabotaged equipment.

Some residents, frustrated by construction delays, have threatened to grab their guns and start picking off the construction crew.

"We've had individuals drive by, upset about having to use the detours ... and basically say, 'I'm going to come back, I'm going to get my gun and shoot you,' " said Dennis Putnam, project manager from Yeager Skanska Inc.

Others have used their own tractors to ram through dirt barriers that block access from their streets to the highway, Caltrans officials said.

When the dirt barriers were replaced with 6,000-pound concrete barriers, some locals tossed chains around the barriers and hauled them out of the way with their pickup trucks -- all so they could avoid detours that can add as much as 45 minutes to each leg of their commutes.

Thieves have stolen locks, gates and even the poles that hold up the gates to the site, said Capt. Doug Rich of the California Highway Patrol. Officials from Yeager Skanska said saboteurs cut the water line to the project and stole about $30,000 worth of compaction equipment and power tools.

Fabian Serafin, labor foreman for the $44-million project, said his flaggers, who act as gatekeepers for the construction site, have called him from their cellphones panicked "because people are pulling over wanting to beat them down."

Those threats come most often from drivers who miss the scheduled escorts for commuters, when a pilot car leads motorists through the construction site between Route 2 and Phelan. The escorts run from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., and again from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Latecomers are forced to take a long detour.

One driver told a worker that area residents were going to park near the middle of the site with guns, taking potshots at the pilot car, Serafin said.

"Our job is very dangerous.... None of my guys like this job," Serafin said.

Because of the threats and vandalism, the CHP will begin patrolling the site 24 hours a day, and officials are setting up video surveillance, said Dennis Green, construction community liaison for Caltrans in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Workers will also be equipped with cameras to photograph vehicles and license plates of drivers who trespass. Caltrans officials have said the contractor will stop the escort service if the threats and vandalism continue.

Many residents, although not condoning the threats or vandalism, said the project was a major inconvenience.

"It's just crazy," said Dave Martin, 45, a plasterer from Wrightwood who added that the long detours were costing him gas, time and money. "It's like you've got to raise your prices on the work that you do because of gas and driving all the way around."

The strong feelings over the traffic delays came as little surprise to Caltrans officials. At the first public hearing about the closures, almost 300 people from the surrounding communities of Phelan, Pinon Hills, Wrightwood and West Cajon Valley showed up to express their anger, said Caltrans spokeswoman Terri Kasinga.

During the hearings, community members were asked to vote on whether they wanted full road closures for three summer months this year and in 2007, with morning and evening escorts, or continuous delays for three years. Residents voted for full closure at every hearing, Kasinga said.

This first phase of the highway project, which will add truck lanes in both directions, widen the shoulders and improve drainage on the 1.5-mile stretch is scheduled to be completed in September.

Victor Rebollar, owner of Wrightwood Auto Service, said truckers who used to deliver his auto parts refuse to do so now.

He said it seemed that highway officials could have done one shoulder and then the other. Rebollar, who is spending his evenings picking up auto parts himself, said, "I'm trying to find a logic to what they're thinking -- maybe they think if they close it all down at once, they'll get it done faster."

But most area residents also said the project was overdue on a stretch of road where there were 544 accidents -- 24 of them fatal -- between I-15 and the Los Angeles County line from 2001 to 2005, according to Caltrans figures.

James Huff, 67, a retired cabinet maker who lives off Highway 138, said he wasn't thrilled about the additional traffic that an improved highway could bring. He said growth in the region had already brought enough traffic past his wind-swept spot in Cajon Canyon where he lives without electricity.

But, he said, there is no excuse for threats.

"Some people just think that the rules only apply to other people, not to them.... They get to cussin' and road-raging," Huff said.

He added that if he had his choice, he would stop people from moving in to the area. "But people got to go somewhere, so you might as well accept it."

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