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As Caltrans battles El Niño, aging infrastructure, lack of resources slow work

For commuters, the early rains in January served as a preview of what scientists expect will be a monster El Niño, a conveyer belt of storms stronger than anything Southern California has seen in more than a decade.

If El Niño's projected storms bear out, drivers can expect a repeat of the slippery freeways, flooded roads, and stalled cars experienced three weeks ago, and higher risk of vehicle injuries and deaths.

The California agency in charge of maintaining state highways and bridges expressed confidence that it can weather what El Niño might deliver and reduce the danger to commuters.

"We're Rodan versus Godzilla, King Kong versus Godzilla," said Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler.

Still, heavy rains can bring repeated chaos to roadways, particularly in areas stripped of vegetation by the ongoing drought or wildfires. Mix the rains in with unstable ground conditions, and mudslides, flooding and crumbling street surfaces can result.

For months, Caltrans has been preparing for the winter rains.

At a construction project on the Pacific Coast Highway at Las Tunas State Beach in Malibu, crews recently worked to move 16-ton rocks to shore up the sea cliff. The work is in an area where pounding surf has eroded the shoreline, moving the water's edge ever closer to the highway.

"If the slope's not protected, it washes away and the highway washes away, too," said Chandler.

A dozen miles up the highway, several crews cleared storm debris out of culverts and dug drainage ditches at the bottom of a slope burned in the 2013 Springs fire

"What happens when you have those heavy rains, all this mud and debris come down and the culvert will not do what it's supposed to, and then we have problems," said Chandler.

Despite the preparations, problems have already emerged. During storms in late December and early January, flooding shut down several lanes of Highway 101 with mud and debris in the Solimar fire burn area in Ventura County.

In early January, a section of Interstate 5 through the north San Fernando Valley flooded for several hours when the pumps that usually clear water became clogged by trash and debris.

Photos and video on news and social media showed a lake stretching across four lanes of the freeway on both sides, leaving some drivers stranded with stalled cars and others fighting several feet of water in a single, open lane.

"It was remarkable to see," said Santa Clarita resident Christain Lanz, who got caught in the flood as he was driving south on the I-5 to get to work. "I could feel the water  hitting the side of my doors and I could see it right under my door handles — it was pretty scary."

Last September, the same stretch of highway flooded during heavy rains as did a section of Interstate 710 at Gage Avenue in Bell Gardens where a local power outage disabled pumps. 

Chandler, the Caltrans' spokesman, played down the incidents. 

"It does cause an inconvenience, but it’s a very rare occasion," said Chandler.

He said in both instances, crews were ready to respond and fix the flooding problems relatively quickly before any structures were damaged.

One expert said expecting agencies like Caltrans to prevent, rather than respond to every possible problem during unpredictable weather events is unfair.

"A good maintenance strategy doesn't reduce risk to zero," said James Moore, a professor of civil engineering and public policy at the University of Southern California.

Moore has studied how Caltrans plans and responds to natural disasters like the Northridge earthquake, and said it's impossible to measure the agency's performance without considering the the political gridlock in finding funds for repairs.

"I’m prepared to cut them some slack if the [Interstate] 5 floods," he said. "I don’t even have to ask to know whether or not they were trying to plan to avoid that. I know that they were. But resources only go so far," he said.

Complaining of limited resources isn't novel for public agencies, but fixing California's aging transportation infrastructure is particularly dire. The state faces a $59 billion backlog in repairs to highways and bridges.

During the recession, the state put off maintenance for many projects. Construction costs have since increased and revenues from gas taxes haven't kept pace with the need. 

Caltrans receives only about a third of the funding it requires to keep up routine maintenance of 50,000 miles of highways and hundreds of thousands of drainage facilities, which prevent floods like the one on I-5.

Most of California's pump stations were built when its freeways were constructed in the 1950s, and the state estimates 35 percent of its culverts are in need of some kind of repair.

The problem has loomed so large that last year Gov. Jerry Brown called for a special legislative session to address the funding gap. But the group charged with the task, made up of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both houses of the legislature, met only three times and made little headway toward an agreement.

Brown has proposed a package combining higher fees for drivers with revenues from the state's cap and trade markets and a streamlined environmental review process intended to cut construction costs. Lawmakers have been reluctant to accept the compromise thus far.

"It has to be a bipartisan approach," said state Sen. Jim Beall, who chairs the special session. "It's clear that compromises have to be made, but we’re continuing to work on it. We’re not there yet."

Moore thinks now is a good a time as there may be for legislators to act.

"After a natural disaster, there is a window of opportunity that opens up politically," he said, pointing to increased funding for retrofitting in the wake of earthquakes. "These events do bring about response."

Meanwhile, until the state acts, drivers may want to keep their Waze app open for alerts about road flooding and other hazards.

L.A. County Fire Department's flood safety tips

Here are some practices to follow if you get caught driving in heavy rains:

  • Avoid driving through flood waters.
  • Be aware of potential flood-like conditions.
  • Heed “Turn Around—Don’t Drown!” signs from the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Stay away from flood control channels such as catch basins, canyons and natural waterways.
  • If flood water rises around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground.
  • Stay away from flooded areas, even if the water seems to be diminishing.
  • Do not attempt to cross flooded areas and never enter moving water.
  • Know where you’re going if you abandon your car.

The KPCC map below shows areas and traffic hotspots in Southern California vulnerable to El Niño damage.
Click on the yellow pins to locate areas that are at risk and learn the exact nature of the threat; click on the red pins for traffic locations subject to flooding. You can see a larger map here