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'Conscious Decision a Couple Days Earlier' Created Massive Pass Backup

Caltrans District 8 Director Raymond W. Wolfe absolved the Robertson's Ready Mix concrete batch plant in Cabazon of blame in the epic traffic snarl, which stretched from Banning to Palm Springs.

A decision made days before the massive Sunday backup in the San Gorgonio Pass was the primary cause of the 20-mile, 10-hour jam created by Caltrans, the agency's local director told the Riverside County Board of Supervisors this week.

"There was a conscious decision a couple of days earlier by the construction team that they weren't even going to start placing concrete in the slabs that were removed until 7 in the morning," Caltrans District 8 Director Raymond W. Wolfe told the board.

Wolfe appeared Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, who asked him to provide an explanation for the Feb. 12 backup.

He again took responsibility for the chain of events that led to the 20-mile, 10-hour jam, and he absolved the Robertson's Ready Mix concrete batch plant in Cabazon of blame in the delays.

Banning-Beaumont Patch visited the batch plant Feb. 16, where a supervisor there stated in the massive backup and delays.

"It was not the batch plant," Wolfe told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday Feb. 28. "It's the decision of my staff that led to the unfortunate events on February 12th, and for that I am deeply apologetic and it will not happen again under my watch."

Wolfe reiterated that the and an inspector were removed from the project, and said he is "proceeding with disciplinary action. I won't say any more about what that is, but we are taking care of business in-house."

Wolfe incorrectly stated the last lane closures were picked up by 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12. The east of 22nd Street in Banning was re-opened around 9 p.m.

The massive backup contained as many as , and it took many motorists four hours or more to cover a stretch that normally takes 45 minutes or less. It was so bad four people flew a private jet over the snarl to make it to the in Los Angeles.

Wolfe spoke Tuesday for 11 minutes, and the entire text of his speech is included in this report.

Supervisor John Benoit, whose 4th District is home to 420,000 residents from Desert Hot Springs to the Colorado River, introduced Wolfe.

"On Sunday February the 12th, at about 11:30 a.m., I got a call from my wife and she was saying 'What's wrong with the freeway?'

"She was on the I-10, headed westbound for a matinee performance in Orange County that she never got to. But her story's only one of 20 to 30 thousand stories that day," Benoit said.

"Shortly after I talked to Sheryl I called the CHP dispatch in Indio and was told there was some kind of a construction deal going on. That was an understatement," Benoit said.

"My next call was to Ray Wolfe, who got back to me pretty shortly thereafter and was beyond apologetic," Benoit said. "He was almost apoplectic, I think."

"Apoplectic" is an adjective defined by Oxford American Dictionaries as "overcome with anger; extremely indignant."

Benoit continued:

"Ray Wolfe is here, he's our Caltrans director. We'll hear from him in just a minute. But what was really startling to me was that about 3 o'clock that afternoon, or maybe 3:30, I got my first news alert.

"And it occurred to me at that time I hadn't heard any news alerts. It was 3:30 and the Desert Sun put out 'Traffic Congestion on I-10.' Oh man, that was an understatement also," Benoit said.

Editor's Note: Banning-Beaumont Patch began reporting and posting on the massive backup before 1 p.m. Feb. 12, with perspective from CHP and Caltrans officials obtained in phone interviews. The full BB Patch report from Sunday Feb. 12 .

"So I asked the CHP and Caltrans to be here today to help us understand what went wrong, what we learned, and what we can do to avoid similar problems in the future," Benoit said.

"I want to thank a number of people who have expressed similar concerns. Mary Bono's office is in touch with (Department of Transportation) Secretary LaHood in Washington, D.C., has written a letter of concern, and she's represented here today by her able assistant Marc Troast in the front row there.

"I know that Assemblyman Nestande has called for some hearings in the desert. (State) Senator Emmerson is involved," Benoit said. "He was actually caught in the event also, leaving the desert. So there was a lot of concern, and justifiably so.

"Before we get into the presentations, I'd just like to say: this isn't the first time and it won't be the last. But we've got to do better. Two years ago we had an incident and I called Caltrans and I want to say to Ray Wolfe's credit, he moved heaven and earth. Well, no maybe some jersey barriers.

"He moved some jersey barriers into place on I-10, that are there now and we could actually, depending upon where the accident occurred, because of his proactive response to the last one, move those barriers out and move traffic to the opposite side for a period of time, if that was an option," Benoit said.

"It was not an option in this case because this event wasn't an accident. This event occurred a little further to the west and therefore was . . . in the area where there are no bypasses.

"We are working on other opportunities in the Pass . . . we have a proposal to put out to contract, efforts to begin the Hargrave to Apache Trail work on the south side of the freeway to add capacity for bypass," Benoit said.

"We are working with the Morongo Indian Tribe, who I understand have been contacted subsequent to this event, are extremely willing to allow in emergencies use of their tribal lands to the north. We're going to work on possibly improving a roadway through there.

"But it's worth noting that there's still going to be problems," Benoit said. "The unique geography and the traffic patterns that we see in this particular area wil continue to create potential for huge backups.

"This occurred where people were actually getting off and going through and using the city streets in Banning. And someone asked 'Why do you end up with a 15-mile backup when you've got city streets that you can use as an alternative?'

"Well, think of it in terms of trying to put the contents of a fire hose through a straw. It's just not going to work. You got too many vehicles coming back to L.A., from Arizona, from the desert, and it's just too huge, the traffic," Benoit said.

"And so the one thing we can do, that we didn't do well in this incident, is communicate better to those who are coming, 'Stay in the desert and have dinner.' Many could have enjoyed a much better day, had they gotten better word.

"So I reached out immediately after the incident and got immediate positive responses from several people who are here today, and I'm going to ask them to come up and give us a little more background on what's happened since then," Benoit said.

"We have Ray Wolfe, the district director from Caltrans. Bob Clark, assistant chief, Border Division CHP, and Greg Peck, the local area commander on scene, and I'd ask them all to step forward now if they haven't fled the building.

"No, they're here. Yes. Come on up. While they're coming up I'd like to say these gentlemen and I met with the hospitality industry last Wednesday in the San Gorgonio Pass," Benoit said.

"The desert group of the hospitality industry reached out to me and said if they had gotten the word, they could have put the word out at their concierge desks and other places in town. We had a very productive meeting.

"We've put in place some mechanisms that will allow an immediate blast to the hospitality industry and they're working on protocols to make that happen," Benoit said.

"So with that background, I'll start I guess probably with you Ray, with Caltrans, and I think probably my colleagues have a letter dated yesterday from the director, acting director that is at our desk. Go ahead Ray, thank you."

Raymond W. Wolfe, Caltrans District 8:

"Good morning Mr. Chair. Good morning members of the board. Thank you for the opportunity to come here this morning and talk about the incident that happened between Feb. 11 and Feb. 12, and then talk about some of the things that we're trying to do to ensure it doesn't happen again," Wolfe said.

"Setting aside briefly the impacts that were endured by thousands as you said, supervisor, of your constituents, of people that were coming back or going somewhere, and hadn't planned on spending the afternoon on the I-10 freeway, just for a moment, and these are people that have entrusted in me the safety and reliability of the transportation network on the state highways in District 8 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the real tragedy in my mind, absent that for a moment, is the fact that this didn't have to happen," Wolfe said.

"Previous events that you alluded to, the shooting in 2005, I think there were three separate accidents that occurred two years ago, major accidents that shut the entire corridor down a little bit further east, setting all of that aside for a moment, those were incidents that really couldn't be anticipated.

"Yes, this particular area is constrained because we don't have a bypass throught this area," Wolfe said. "There is as you noted efforts to try to change that. After the accidents two years ago, we have started to do some things also that create tools wherever possible while we don't have a bypass.

"And part of that was getting out there and at least at two locations, putting in openings in the median. We have a project that's moving forward that should be in construction in about 14, 16 months that will follow up and add three more openings in the median barrier, basically east of Apache Trail to 111, and we'll have gates as opposed to the jersey barriers, so that they can be more easily accessed.

"That opportunity's there," Wolfe said. "We have a project that's moving forward to install changeable message signs, one in Blythe and another one in Desert Center. That's the first project, that's starting construction this June. We have another project that'll come to construction next summer, about the same time in June of next summer, that'll add three more changeable message signs.

"But those things aren't here yet.

"What happened on February 11th and February 12th again, should never have happened. It was based on a decision of staff at a lower level in my organization to get some work done," Wolfe said.

"We have a project in that area that's been going on, I think in construction since August of last year. And that project is to replace slabs out there on the concrete pavement and then grind the pavement to provide a smoother ride.

"The slab replacement effort under contract was completed last November. It had to completed at that point because the nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees and you can't place concrete at night during the winter months," Wolfe said.

"So that effort was completed in November. The contractor was preparing to come out and start grinding the lanes, which you need to do after you replace the slabs, and our maintenance crews contacted our construction office and said, 'Hey we've got a number of slabs, additional slabs that need to get replaced. We need to see those get replaced now.'

"One of the problems with concrete pavement is it's great for about 20 years," Wolfe said. "It's great, but once it starts to fail, it takes a lot more effort to maintain and rehabilitate it.

"So this project was basically to take these slabs out. There is an agreement that we had money on the contract, we would go back out there, and we would remove and replace these additional slabs.

"Construction folks wanted to get that done before the grinding operation, decided that they would rather proceed rather than to wait, because ideally what they should have done is waited until April or May when the nighttime temperatures allow us to place concrete.

"There was a decison that was made that we're going to move forward so that we don't impact the contractor's schedule," Wolfe said. "That decision was never elevated in the organization, because had it been it would have never happened.

"The decision was, 'We've got 21 slabs on the westbound side that need to be replaced and we have six slabs on the eastbound side, within the project limits. So they proceeded to remove 21 slabs, and as I noted in one of my early correspondence to many politicians in the area, 'You can't anticipate that you're going to be able to replace and place concrete at 21 locations in the night shift you have in your closure.'

"So they went forward knowing full well that the project was going to extend beyond the approved lane closure," Wolfe said. "The approved lane closure required traffic to be fully restored on the westbound lanes by 7 o'clock in the morning.

"There was a conscious decision a couple of days earlier by the construction team that they weren't even going to start placing concrete in the slabs that were removed until 7 in the morning.

"So you can see that there was a decision that was outside the parameters that are allowed," Wolfe said.

"So, at about 6:30, 7 o'clock in the morning there was a recognition by one of the inspectors on site that there was some sub-grade issues that needed to be addressed.

"The contractor notified the batch plant that 'We have some delays' and asked them to hold off on delivering concrete until about 10 o'clock in the morning," Wolfe said.

"They repaired those, again, nobody notified me. Nobody notified their immediate chain of command. There was no knowledge of what was going on out there.

"We, they proceeded to repair that 10 o'clock or thereabouts the first couple of concrete trucks arrived.

"This concrete in order to establish traffic within a three or four hour window, if you've ever placed slabs in your backyard for your patio or whatever, it takes a while for concrete to set," Wolfe said. "It takes a while just for you to be able to walk on it, much less for you to be able to drive vehicles on it, including semi trucks.

"So we use an accelerator in the mix in order to try to get that concrete to cure quicker so that we can get traffic back out there. Works great. Takes three or four hours for that to happen.

"The accelerator was added at the plant when those first trucks arrived a little bit after 10. By the time they had worked their way through traffic, the concrete was already setting," Wolfe said.

"And so they couldn't discharge that concrete from the trucks, so those trucks were rejected. It took another two hours to get concrete on-site to begin placing concrete.

"All the while, there was never any recognition, never any contact throug the organization to say 'Hey we have a problem,' which gets to why there were no media alerts.

"Then they started placing concrete. About 12:30, 12:45, I find out that there's a problem, and soon thereafter you and I were in discussion. And so, trying to figure out, knowing that there is no work that is planned in this area, it took another three, three and half hours for us to figure out what was even happening out there.

"That is unacceptable. And some of the things that we have done, I mean had we known earlier that they had a problem, there are mitigations that could have been effected to get traffic open, at least get another lane open to try to push a little bit more of that fire hose through the straw, get two straws going, but had we known there were things that we could have done.

"By the time we knew, it was too late. The concrete was already in place, an hour later we had the number two lane, remember there were four lanes in the area, three lanes were closed, we had the number two lane which is second to the fast lane, and then an hour and half later by seven-thirty at night we had all the traffic lanes open again.

"I know the news reported it was 9:30 at night, but it was actually 7:30 at night that the contractor had picked up the last lane closures.

Editor's Note: Banning-Beaumont Patch was westbound on the 10 between Cabazon and Banning at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 and eyeballed the far right lane closed starting at the East Ramsey Street on-ramp. That lane remained closed to 22nd Street. As of 9 p.m. Caltrans workers were collecting cones and re-opening the last closed lane east of 22nd Street. To read the full BB Patch report from Sunday Feb. 12 .

On Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, Wolfe continued:

"By then it was too late. And it's really unfortunate that the procedures and the policies that we have in our organization to prevent this kind of thing were not followed.

"Once I found out exactly what was going on the very first action we took is we removed the resident engineer and we removed the inspector from the project. We are proceeding with disciplinary action. I won't say any more about what that is, but we are taking care of business in-house.

"We have also issued additional memos, internal, both in construction and to all staff, to remind them that there are policies and procedures in place, and that they are required to follow those policies and procedures, and outlining what those are in this particular instance, and how they weren't followed, so that we can make sure that this doesn't happen again.

"Not only is this happening in this district, but it's also happening statewide, to make sure. Because while this particular area seems to suffer year-in and year-out with problems, this is not the only area in the state highway network that could potentially have this kind of issues.

"It's not the only area in the state highway network that's suffered this in the past.

"One other thing I wanted to talk about. The batch plant early on was identified as the main culprit in all of this. And that was based on my staff and the contractors' statements early on when we were trying to figure out 'Well what happened out here?' once we knew that it was a construction project. 'It was the batch plant.'

"It was not the batch plant. It was decisions that were made, conscious decisions, to avoid, just to move forward regardless of the fact that you've got a window to work in. That, that's what happened.

"The fact that the batch plant sent out concrete that was already dosed with the accelerator and that it added another couple of hours, that's a blip on the screen compared to what happened here. It's the decision of my staff that led to the unfortunate events on February 12th, and for that I am deeply apologetic and it will not happen again under my watch."

Benoit thanked Wolfe and said "The Highway Patrol was also on scene. I understand Captain Peck you were there for most of the day. But obviously there's some issues there too on the communications side. So please tell us the CHP's perspective."

California Highway Patrol Capt. Greg Peck, who assumed command of the San Gorgonio Pass Area CHP office on July 1:

"Good morning board. Nice to be here. Just before I get started, 23 years ago, I came to Indio, California, from the academy. And one of the things they taught us at the academy is 'You never want to be in front of the captain of the area.'

"And John Benoit was my captain, and unfortunately I sat in front of the captain a couple times. And now here I am again."

Benoit: "You're going to get it right."

Peck: "One of these days. But from the Highway Patrol's perspective, when I took over as the commander of San Gorgonio Pass area, my boss, Chief Clark, made it very clear. He's a former commander of San Gorgonio and he made it very clear to me that that is a high priority area for closures, because there's just no egress of traffic once the closure starts.

"And then about four months ago the commissioner came down to give an award in our area and I had the opportunity to go to lunch with him and he took about 15 to 20 minutes to explain to me how important that was to him.

"So I want the board to know that from my perspective as the area commander that's very important, and as soon as I heard about it, I put on my uniform and I was en route.

"My basic job there was I was trying to mitigate, move the construction projects. We have officers that are assigned . . . and basically their job in that situation is to protect the Caltrans crews and the construction crews.

"But when I got there the damage was done, and what I was trying to do was mitigate. Where I feel that I made a mistake that won't happen again in the future is what you pointed out earlier Supervisor Benoit is communication.

"I should have been thinking farther outside the box, and notification in Indio area, so that the people that were entering Interstate 10 would have been aware of how bad the closure was.

"As you know we're working, Supervisor Benoit, you set up that meeting with the tourism industry and we're going to be working with the tourism industry for better notification.

"Also we met with the Morongo Tribe. They're very positive about allowing us to use Seminole as a bypass. It won't eliminate the entire problem but it will help the problem."

Editor's Note: Seminole Drive in Cabazon was open Feb. 12 and it was jammed with motorists, same as the frontage road on the south side of Interstate 10. See photos on BB Patch's .

"Basically I want the board to know I take these things serious. We're looking at a lot of different things in the future to make sure this don't happen. Training of our officers. They have efforts to mitigate these once they happen, and our officers are going to be trained on that before the construction project starts. So they'll be talking to the resident engineer, and will have a threshold for when 'Hey, you know what, we need to implement the mitigation effort so this don't back up as far as it does.'

"Because I'm extremely sorry for what happened and under my watch it's unacceptable."

ATC March 01, 2012 at 04:37 PM
So Morongo is very positive about "letting" us use Seminole as a bypass? What? Seminole accomplishes nothing, as it is always open anyway, but it doesn't go through to Banning. So that is a rather dumb statement for the CHP to make. Using Seminole won't "help" the problem at all. Obviously, since Seminole was already being used and was at a standstill as well.
Mariana Zuelsdorf March 01, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Excellent follow-up. But I can remember being able to drive on reservation land to get from Cabazon to Banning. I don't know what happened to change that but in the case of a freeway closure, I would think Morongo would allow access. If the reservation has an emergency, they don't hesitate to call for non-res assistance.
nobodyuno March 01, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Quit apologizing and saying it won't happen again because it will. You've lied, tried blaming robertsons and blamed lower staff for failure to communicate. If you (Wolfe/Clark) take full responsibility then resign. Why have they not been fired? This is outrageous, I'm sorry, that's it? Our tax dollars working for us, NOT!!!!!

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