Carmageddon in Corona

Westbound lane closures on the 91 create gridlock in the Circle City but safety must come first.

Ditching the Corona Crawl: Many people were waiting for the 7:18am westbound arrival of IEOC Line Train 809 from the North Main Corona Metrolink station on Wednesday morning of the 91 Sig-Alert. 

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It looked like traffic hell in Corona during Tuesday's and Wednesday's morning commute. According to news reports, Mother Nature sent Caltrans and Riverside County transportation officials a scary note very early Tuesday when heavy rains struck the 91 freeway through the Santa Ana Canyon.

Experts in the field found that after a storm cell swept through very early in the morning, a hillside that supports the right side of the westbound lanes just west of Green River Road may have eroded. As a result, an emergency inspection and repair project had to be executed which shut down the right two lanes of the freeway through the Canyon for two days.

Community Relations Manager Eliza Echevarria of the Riverside County Transportation Commission told the Press Enterprise this:

They never know until they get down in there. (Inspectors) saw this pooling water and ... saw that some of the roadway was compromised underneath. That was enough concern that they needed to pull up the roadway to see what damage may or may not have been there. It was most definitely a safety measure.

Because the 91 is the one and only vehicle road that directly connects Corona to Orange County through the Canyon, the two-day Sig-Alert brought a whole new definition to traffic delays through Corona during the Tuesday and Wednesday morning rush hours. With no direct alternative routes other than peak-hour Metrolink train service, it's no question that Corona had its turn of Carmageddon. Both mornings, the westbound 91 had a solid bumper-to-bumper backup from the county line area all the way into Riverside with the queue of stopped cars stretching almost to La Sierra Road at its peak.

Adding to the dilemma were numerous traffic collisions.

On Tuesday morning, the I-15 north that connects into the 91 was also reportedly delayed all the way out of north Lake Elsinore no thanks to reported problems there. Some motorists from Southwest Riverside County and Riverside Transit Agency Route 206 bus riders who usually connect to Metrolink at Corona missed their scheduled morning train departures. Commuters who drove all the way into Orange County from the 15 spent a whopping 3-4 hours behind the wheel.

On Wednesday, a reported motorcycle collision on the westbound 91 during the rush hour near the emergency construction  site blocked a part of the the egress/ingress segment that links the end of the westbound carpool lane with the entrance to the 91 Express Lanes. Another Sig-Alert in the Canyon as westbound traffic on surface streets was at a standstill all over Circle City. Worse yet, several additional local traffic accidents were reported throughout Corona's gridlocked roadways.

People were stuck for literately hours.

In fact, I was at the Corona Transit Center Wednesday morning and experienced some of the trouble firsthand. There was some chaos on the transit front. I saw people running from the busy parking structure to the train platform, possibly because regular train riders were delayed heading to the giant park & ride garage. The lines at the ticket vending machines were also long. I predicted that some 91 commuters gave up on the freeway, drove to the station as a last resort to give the train a try. There were so many people wanting to board the 7:18am departure of IEOC Train 809 to south Orange County that some had to wait about 25 minutes for the 7:43am departure of Train 811 due to parking and the TVM lines.

At the RTA transit hub, I saw numerous motorists illegally driving into the bus boarding area of the station, possibly because they were thinking in error that the transitway was a through street. That's understandable because the line of cars in the Grand Avenue Circle was moving slower than a pedestrian taking a leisurely walk. I am not kidding. Local RTA and Corona Cruiser buses were also late.

The madness was so bad in Corona, that its mayor issued an open letter to RCTC.

I'm not going to analyze the content of the city's memo, but the truth is there will be new hard lessons learned from this story. I predict that there will be some new protocols developed to reduce the number of collisions in times of traffic gridlock. I believe we'll have better preparedness at the ready for emergencies at highways lacking alternative routes. The fact is meteorologists predict heavy rains for our drought-stricken state during the remainder of this summer's hot and humid monsoon and upcoming winter storm season.

Regardless of what corrective action is taken, all of us must follow this: Natural law. And if heavy rains or acts of nature impact our infrastructure, there's going to be difficult on-the-fly decisions and emergency declarations to be made no matter what the level of preparedness or awareness may be. Unfortunately, this last rain storm incident occurred at an existing freeway bottleneck and the priority was to inspect and repair the 91 as quickly and efficiently as possible. One consequence of the job was widespread traffic delays but safety is no accident.

RCTC and Caltrans are to be commended for how their teams handled this situation and for getting the entire demolition/inspection/repair/rebuild operation completed within a mere 2 days.

While congestion at this level is something we wish would never repeat for our primary gateway into Orange County, natural law and safe infrastructure takes precedence. When nature moves in and challenges our transportation agencies with emergency work, it is always better to err in the side of safety.