In the wake of last February's catastrophic 25-mile, day-long backup on Interstate 10 in the San Gorgonio Pass, Caltrans announced today it has put in place ways to warn desert travelers of such massive traffic jams to allow drivers to avoid getting caught. The February 12, 2012 incident, which stemmed from a road repair contractor's mistake, stranded thousands of travelers without services for hours on a desolate stretch of desert interstate highway.
Contractors conducting a scheduled repair a section of the interstate near Banning in February failed to ensure the availability of concrete from a nearby supplier, then neglected to alert Caltrans that the lanes would remain closed longer than scheduled. The area that was being repaired is a roadway chokepoint, with no nearby alternate routes, between the low desert and the Riverside-San Bernardino area, and weekend traffic was typically heavy for a Sunday.
The resulting traffic jam stretched for at least 25 miles east past Palm Springs, and motorists attempting to drive the stretch reported numerous vehicles out of gas, with desperate drivers and passengers using the shoulder as an impromptu bathroom. It took about four hours to drive the 25-mile stretch of I-10 during the unplanned partial closure.
As a result of that mishap, Caltrans announced Friday that it has installed new driver alert signs east of San Gorgonio Pass at Blythe and Desert Center, to warn drivers in time to take one of the few alternate routes to Interstate 10 between the low desert and the Los Angeles area. "Changeable Message Signs will allow us to deliver information directly to the drivers before they encounter large traffic back-ups," said Caltrans Director Basem Muallem. "Motorists will be able to take an alternate route to avoid long delays."
Those alternate routes will most likely mean most of the Interstate's westbound traffic is shunted onto Routes 62 and 247 through the Mojave Desert, or the even more circuitous routes 74 and 78 to the south. Riverside County is working to build alternate routes through the San Gorgonio Pass, but those will likely take some time to be completed.
In addition, Caltrans has increased the number of vehicle detectors along the desert portion of I-10, which will allow travelers to scope out traffic conditions on the Inland Empire's real-time traffic site.
Even in the absence of an catastrophic backup, Caltrans's new signage will inform drivers of the travel times they face in getting across the desert. That'll at least give you an answer for those impatient kids in the back seat.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. He writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.