It's time to build an I-15 bypass route

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It's time to build an I-15 bypass route

BY ROBERT A. LOVINGOOD

The Cajon Pass is a vital crossroads. It’s where the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains meet. And where the Los Angeles Basin connects to the High Desert and beyond, by way of Interstate 15.

As a major logistics corridor, the safety of nearly 300,000 daily Cajon Pass commuters, travelers and truckers is regularly threatened by both manmade and natural calamities. Car accidents, wildfires, railroad derailments and other mishaps frequently bring traffic to a stop for hours. Christmas morning of 2018, the northbound roadway experienced a hard closure as some 40 vehicles had collided in a snowy, chain-reaction. Nine people went to the hospital. Thousands were stuck in their cars for up to 3 ½ hours.

During the past two years, freeway lanes through the Cajon Pass have been shut down, on average, nearly eight times a month – sometimes briefly and sometimes multiple lanes for hours. Even relatively minor accidents can bring traffic to a crawl. For commuters, it’s a nightmarish inconvenience with lost family time and diminished quality of life. For business people, it also means lost productivity and missed appointments. And for the 5,500 truckers hauling freight to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every day, it can mean missed delivery deadlines and tremendous waste of time and money. Complete shut-downs and partial closures are no longer rare occurrences. They are a frequent part of traversing the Pass.

To its credit, the California Highway Patrol has done a great job of enforcement. The CHP has been very effective in keeping truckers in the right-hand lanes, which keeps traffic flowing smoothly. But when the CHP isn’t around, truck traffic moves into other lanes and slows the flow of traffic for everyone.

Alongside Interstate 15, utility lines and critical infrastructure are routed through the Pass. BNSF Railway runs up to 90 trains a day on its three lines in the Cajon Pass, making it one of the busiest rail corridors in the nation. Union Pacific runs 40 to 70 trains daily on its one line.

Utilities also have a stake in improving safety in the Pass. High-voltage lines, natural gas and fuel lines in the Pass are essential to our economic infrastructure. CalNev’s 8-inch pipeline sends the equivalent of 30 tanker trucks of jet fuel per hour from Colton through the Pass and on to Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base. Another 14-inch pipeline supplies gasoline and diesel to Las Vegas.

With so much riding on the Cajon Pass, we are overdue for public safety improvements and infrastructure protections with an I-15 bypass route. This bypass route would provide greater firefighting access during brush fires and other emergencies. It would also help keep traffic flowing during freeway closures.

Part of the work has already been done.

In 2016, Caltrans completed a major upgrade of I-15 through the Cajon Pass, including widening, resurfacing and new transition roads. Cajon Boulevard, formerly Route 66, proceeds south of Kenwood Avenue, goes underneath the new interchange, connects near Devore Road and continues south into San Bernardino. North of Kenwood Avenue, Cajon Boulevard runs up the Pass but then dead-ends about three-quarters of a mile below the Highway 138 junction. At that point, I-15 covers over an old segment of Cajon Boulevard/Route 66. Without an alternative, all traffic is forced to use this three-quarter-mile portion of the interstate.

Possible bypass routes could include:

  • Connecting Cleghorn Road to Wagon Train Road, east of the freeway, 0.7 miles
  • Connecting Cajon Boulevard via a bridge to Wagon Train Road, 0.4 miles
  • Connecting Cajon Boulevard (near Highway 138) to Cajon Boulevard (near Cleghorn Road), east of the freeway, 1.0 miles

A bypass route is absolutely critical for our residents who drive up and down the Pass. And the benefits to public safety and the economy provide tremendous value.

Caltrans recently did a major realignment of Highway 138 east of I-15 greatly improving traffic flow and safety. But in one half-mile stretch, a hard, right-angle turn remains. Fixing this sharp turn should be a top priority.

Public safety officials agree that access between I-15 and frontage roadways in the Cajon Pass is critically important. Freeway accidents create instant gridlock. And that slows first responders from getting to accident victims and transporting them to hospitals. Connecting Cajon Boulevard to Highway 138 would help public safety with response times and allow vehicles to exit the freeway and relieve gridlock. It would also improve public safety access to rail lines that run through the Pass.

During brush fires, improved access would not only help firefighters, but also provide motorists an additional route to quickly get to safety. Since 2002, five major fires have burned through the Cajon Pass. In July 2015, the North Fire shut down I-15 and stranded motorists on the freeway. Dozens abandoned their vehicles and ran for safety, making it difficult for first responders to get through. TV cameras captured memorable images of a car hauler with eight vehicles going up in flames. In all, the blaze damaged or destroyed some 74 vehicles. No one was injured, but officials at the time said the inability of traffic to exit the freeway created “an incident within an incident” and had the potential for mass casualties.

So it’s clear: A bypass route will be a life saver.

The Cajon Pass is a critical cog in the economic infrastructure of not just San Bernardino County, but of all of Southern California. A completed bypass route will help meet the demands of commuters and the goods movement industry. Forecasts show a near tripling of container volume through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in the next 25 years. About 40 percent of the nation’s containerized freight flows through the ports, and about 80 percent of that funnels through San Bernardino County. Interstate 15 which connects to Interstate 40 in Barstow is one of the primary truck corridors to and from the Midwest. The fact that so many logistics firms have located to San Bernardino County proves we need to improve the highway system and eliminate potential choke points like we see in the Cajon Pass.

Just as freight through the Pass is increasing, so are commuters.

Highway 138 is already a major commuter route linking Hesperia to I-15. The planned Tapestry Project in Hesperia is expected to add 16,196 homes at buildout. That will mean an additional 45,000 to 50,000 residents. Caltrans has worked on straightening and widening Highway 138 to I-15. But the coming increase in traffic makes it all the more necessary to link Cajon Boulevard to Highway 138.

Ask anyone who drives the Pass regularly if they support an alternate. The answer will be a resounding “Yes!” Elected leaders have heard the message. Local California State Senators Scott Wilk and Mike Morrell as well as Assemblyman Jay Obernolte support a bypass route. Together we need to act now to improve public safety, protect vital infrastructure and transportation routes to keep San Bernardino County moving.

Supervisor Robert Lovingood is a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors representing the First District.