Board OKs moving ahead with “Interstate 10 Lifeline Emergency Action Plan”

RIVERSIDE – Riverside County supervisors unanimously agreed today that the county should partner with state agencies and area cities to implement plans to alleviate major traffic jams on Interstate 10 between Banning and Palm Springs.

”This will be a good addition to the toolbox, even though it won’t completely solve the problem,” Supervisor John Benoit said. ”This is part of a continuing effort to try to make these events (pileups) fewer and less impactful in the future.”

The ”Interstate 10 Lifeline Emergency Action Plan” calls for the county, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the cities of Banning and Palm Springs and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians to collaborate on improvements along the major east-west artery to save motorists time, gas and stress during a shutdown.

”This is a big deal,” said Supervisor Marion Ashley, who introduced the idea of an emergency plan jointly with Benoit. The two supervisors’ districts both cover portions of I-10.

”We have had some horrific situations on this highway over the last few years,” Ashley said. ”It’s really a lifeline for Southern California.”

About 100,000 vehicles traverse I-10 through the San Gorgonio Pass daily, according to county transportation officials. The roughly 19-mile stretch of highway lacks readily accessible detour routes, including frontage roads, that would permit drivers to exit the interstate and continue in either direction in the event of a closure.

In the last few years, authorities have shut down I-10 on several occasions, resulting in hours-long delays that left traffic stacked up for miles. In February, a 20-mile traffic jam occurred on the westbound side of the freeway near Banning when a Caltrans crew closed two lanes during a pavement replacement project. Some motorists were delayed up to seven hours.

Then-Caltrans District 8 Director Ray Wolfe blamed the fiasco on underlings who had — without his authorization — given a private contractor permission to extend an overnight closure into the morning hours.

Under the bypass plan, the county and its partners would undertake a five-year effort to extend roads, establish u-turn gaps and install electronic message signs to alleviate freeway choke points during major delays in the pass.

The agreement laying out the tentative terms of the plan would require the county to:

— Build a two-lane road south of I-10 connecting Hathaway Street to Apache Trail, a roughly three-mile link between Banning and Cabazon;

— assist in extending Seminole Road north of I-10 to Rushmore Avenue;

— assist in securing funding for the extension of Tamarack Road from Mesquite Road to the Whitewater cutoff north of I-10;

— obtain funding for the extension of Garnet Avenue from the Whitewater cutoff to the western end of Garnet, south of I-10;

— purchase message boards for use along I-10 near the Indian Avenue interchange and on southbound 62 at Dillon Road; and

— provide county personnel and resources to assist state officials during an emergency freeway closure.

Supervisor Jeff Stone recommended — and his colleagues agreed — that gated openings should be placed at regular intervals on the freeway median to permit drivers to turn around during a shutdown on one side of the interstate. The CHP would have to open the gates.

At Stone’s urging, the Board of Supervisors also agreed to include in the action plan the placement of storage containers stocked with water, first- aid kits and other provisions for the benefit of motorists stranded during a serious backup.

”By storing the appropriate supplies, we might prevent a terrible tragedy, especially in the middle of summer,” Stone said.

Caltrans would install message boards in several key locations along the freeway, to be erected between now and the summer of 2013, and the CHP would be urged to develop contingency plans to expedite traffic through the pass, using alternate routes during a closure, and to immediately inform all partners of what’s happening.

The cities of Banning and Palm Springs would be expected to provide whatever resources they can muster to assist, as well as the Morongo Indian reservation, which would also be the lead player in the extension of Seminole Road, according to the plan.

A committee made up of all stakeholders will meet a minimum of twice yearly to measure progress.

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