November 20, 2006

Vegas factor plagues small town's traffic

Yermo residents know when heading out for an errand is useless.

By Jonathan Abrams, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

YERMO, CALIF. — For the millions of gamblers motoring toward Vegas on Interstate 15, this tiny town dotted by billboards and gas stations hardly registers.

But for residents in the desert hamlet of 4,200, plunked midway between Los Angeles and Nevada, the conga line of Sin City revelers makes even the simple task of driving to the grocery store a major headache.

"It's been this way forever," said Geoff Berner, 57, who has lived in Yermo for nearly a quarter-century. "As a local, you just accept that it is what it is and either plan the extra time or don't go out at all."

The usual weekend traffic jam has mushroomed because of a repaving project on Interstate 15 near town, where as many as 75,000 vehicles speed by on weekends. The construction is part of a major Caltrans project that will resurface 50 miles of interstate and build a 4.6-mile truck-climbing grade north of town.

"They haven't seen any work up there for a while," Caltrans spokeswoman Terri Kasinga said. "Due to deterioration from weather and truck traffic, this repaving was necessary."

The project could add an hour to a Vegas trip, but work halts Saturdays and Sundays, Kasinga added.

Berner compared the weekend gridlock to a weekday in downtown Los Angeles, when commuters crawl to the Westside in the afternoon.

Because Yermo is devoid of major supermarkets, department stores and hospitals, residents must drive to Barstow or Victorville for major necessities.

"I would be crazy to try and go to Barstow, Victorville or Los Angeles on a Friday or Sunday," said Berner, who first gauges traffic on the 15 before going on errands.

So Yermo residents often resort to alternate routes, such as Interstate 40 or surface roads, to circumvent the Vegas crunch.

"We use those other roads when you can literally go out on the 15 and sell lemonade from car to car because traffic is so bad," said Mike Henderson, 55, a 16-year resident and chairman of the Yermo Community Service District.

Yermo, the last town on the highway before the Mojave National Preserve, can boast of a little more history than the average highway pit stop.

It was a major filming site for the 2003 film "Hulk" and has a nifty 1950s-themed diner named Peggy Sue's. And Calico, a tourist ghost town restored by Walter Knott, the founder of Knott's Berry Farm, is just north of the town.

Yermo — Spanish for "desert" or "barren" — was once named Otis after Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, who founded the Los Angeles Times and owned several mines in the area, said Steve Smith, vice president of the Mojave River Valley Museum in Barstow.

In 1905, the Postal Service changed the name to Yermo — possibly because of a clash between Otis and the local miners union, although that is just local lore, Smith said.

The town became a well-traveled train stop and still is home to a Union Pacific terminal.

As crowded as the area gets, motorists do not contribute heavily to the town's economy, Henderson said.

Drivers usually exit the freeway only to bypass backups on it. Most refuel in Barstow and, as a result, Yermo has turned from a thriving area to a bedroom community. The town has lost about six motels and 25 gas stations in the last 35 years, he said.

"The traffic doesn't generate a great amount of revenue at all," Henderson said. "People blow through this town at 65 miles an hour when the speed limit is 45. They leave before we get a chance to catch them."

Fred Sandridge, 78, a 35-year resident, said careless drivers eager to get to or from Las Vegas only multiply the problem.

"There's no way you get out there in the Vegas traffic when it is busy," Sandridge said. "There's a lot of reckless driving. People speed, they push and drive like maniacs. That's why there are accidents here, and then things really slow down."

Caltrans is repaving the freeway from Main Street in Barstow to Rasor Road, a little past Yermo. Work began in April and is scheduled to run through next summer at a cost of $54 million, Kasinga said.

Because of that project and another to the south, construction on the interchange between Interstate 15 and 215, Caltrans is advising motorists to add plenty of time for Las Vegas trips.

Yermo residents have reluctantly become accustomed to the construction and its delays, an outlook that isn't as prevalent in the Wrightwood area and Phelan. There, motorists have made death threats against construction workers and sabotaged equipment over delays caused by safety improvements to Highway 138 over the summer.

"We'll never to get to that point," Berner said, chuckling. "Most people living here have been here awhile and know what the traffic deal is."