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A cure for road rage: close road

With angry drivers attacking flagmen, Caltrans will shut down part of California 138 until a project is done.

June 07, 2007|Hector Becerra and Tony Barboza | 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.

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