Morning commuters go cellular, bombard Caltrans with complaints


Just when falling rocks at Las Flores seemed to have finally discouraged even the most steadfast Z traffic (Valley commuters who zig through Malibu to avoid the 101-to-405 crush), a rash of traffic light malfunctions kept PCH royally clogged most of last week.

It’s enough to turn Malibu into a whole town of telecommuters.

The morning dash for the desks Friday became a crawl when the stop light at Porto Marina (between Coastline and Sunset) went out at about 7:30 a.m. bringing traffic to a screeching halt.

Commuters whipped out their cell phones and bombarded Caltrans with complaints, but to no avail. One commuter said he was told to call the Sheriff’s Department because “it’s their responsibility to put a patrolman there to direct traffic.”

At that point on PCH, however, jurisdiction belongs to LAPD.

Actually, the stretch between Malibu city limits and the McClure Tunnel is divided among LAPD, CHP and SMPD. How’s that for sharing your pain?

Another Caltrans representative said Caltrans had alerted LAPD at 7:44 a.m., but LAPD had elected not to send an officer to the scene. The official word from Caltrans Media Relations Chief Margie Tiritilli, issued by fax Friday afternoon, was: “A traffic signal pole was knocked down during an accident. The signal went on flash during this period. The signal operation was restored this morning. A new pole will be installed Saturday.”

“There ought to be some level of responsibility for that. It happens all the time,” said commuter Mike Minder, via cell phone to The Malibu Times from his place in the traffic line. “It’s 9:57 and the signal just started working. My wife went into town two hours ago, at 7:30. There was a guy alongside me moving with traffic in a Caltrans truck and he said it wasn’t his work. The thing that’s so frustrating is that nobody would own it.”

An informed source at City Hall, who requested anonymity, told Minder that if LAPD had sent out a traffic officer, the officer would have had a key to the box on the traffic light pole and that often all they need to do is reset a switch. Minder said he was told maintenance of the traffic lights is performed under a contract between Caltrans and private companies. “Apparently, whoever has the contract now isn’t doing anything,” Minder said.

Tiritilli, however, said that traffic light maintenance is not contracted out.

Another Malibu commuter, Andy Cohen, was trying to get to Beverly Hills for an 8 a.m. meeting (ordinarily a 35-minute drive) and left at 7:20 a.m. He said he got there at 8:45 because the traffic was backed up before Topanga. “The Porto Marina light was blinking red in all directions, and there was no traffic officer in sight,” Cohen said. He added that he saw no evidence of a crash or downed pole. He also talked to Caltrans from his cell phone. “Margie wasn’t there, I was told to call the emergency number. They told me, ‘We just got the report at 8:30 and we’re sending someone.’ Someone else at Caltrans said, ‘We don’t do that.'”

Commuters say the lights at Porto Marina and Coastline malfunction so often that it has become an expected impediment to the drive, in the same way that the lane restriction at Las Flores adds about 10 minutes to the weekday commute but as much as an hour with weekend beach traffic. Cohen says the afternoon commute is much slower than the morning drive, probably because more people return home at the same time while their morning destination times are more spread out.

Tiritilli said Tuesday, “If motorists call 213-897-4867, the public information line at Caltrans, we take the location and what’s going on, then we call traffic engineers to report the signal out and to please call us back. The engineer, who is a Caltrans employee assigned to that area, is sometimes on patrol there, and he’s the first to see the problem; sometimes a motorist alerts us. Every signal cabinet or controller [on the pole] has a record of when it was repaired and the adjustments made to it,” she said.

Sheriff’s traffic deputies in Malibu do carry keys to the boxes, Tiritilli said. “The reason we gave them the keys is so they can reset a light, but they aren’t trained to do any kind of a repair.”