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Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | For every road closure that Caltrans approves and contractors use, the agency notifies the public and emergency responders about two more closures that never happen.

Between 2005-2008, the local Caltrans office approved 95,000 road closures in San Diego and Imperial counties. But 66,000 of them never happened, according to a public database of Caltrans data. In those instances, contractors sought approval to close a road on a specific night, Caltrans signed off and the contractor never worked that night. The road, lane, bridge or freeway exit stayed open.

Caltrans calls them “phantom closures.”

They’re announced as closures. Caltrans uses the information to make sure road closures throughout the region don’t conflict with each other. The state transportation agency also sends the information to local fire departments and emergency responders to help route fire engines and ambulances around potential roadblocks. Local fire-rescue officials say they count on the closure notifications to be accurate.

But the majority of scheduled road closures never happen.

The Caltrans district office in San Diego outpaced the statewide average for phantom closures between 2005-2008, the database shows. Statewide, 60 percent of Caltrans’ closures were phantoms. In San Diego and Imperial counties, 69 percent were wrong.

Phantom closures are widespread. They occur hundreds of times each day across the state. Between 2005-2008, Caltrans scheduled 437,000 road closures statewide that never happened. For every two roads that were actually closed, three other closures were announced and didn’t happen.

A June 23 voiceofsandiego.org story found wide inaccuracies in the list of closures Caltrans sends to local fire departments daily. The story was based on two nights’ of observation, in which voiceofsandiego.org surveyed dozens of scheduled road closures across the county. The majority were open.

At the Carroll Canyon Road interchange on Interstate 15, for example, the on- and off-ramps, six-lane interstate in both directions and the bridge over it were supposed to be closed overnight. They weren’t.

Caltrans refused to provide its own estimate of the error rate in response to questions for that story, instead requiring a legal request for records. Ed Cartagena, a Caltrans spokesman, said the information couldn’t easily be calculated. After 20 days, Caltrans provided eight boxes of handwritten notes and printouts.

Cathryne Bruce-Johnson, a Caltrans public records coordinator, claimed the information in the notes wasn’t available electronically — even though some pages had been printed out from a lane-closure database.

Told by a reporter that the information was available electronically, Bruce-Johnson later acknowledged it was — but said it would take two months for a specialist to examine the database and determine the error rate.

Despite what Caltrans claims, the error rate is a mouse click away.

The University of California, Berkeley, maintains an extensive public database called the Freeway Performance Measurement System, which lists every phantom closure that’s happened statewide since 2005. The database gleans the information directly from Caltrans’ computers.

voiceofsandiego.org cross-checked Caltrans’ handwritten notes against the online database to insure the information stored online is accurate.

The database acknowledges the possibility that closures may have happened but not been properly documented. That may make some actual closures mistakenly show up as phantoms, the database says, though no margin of error is identified.

Pedro Orso-Delgado, Caltrans’ district director, said he was unaware of the Berkeley database’s lane closure information, which has been available online since 2008.

While Caltrans requires contractors to notify the agency two days ahead of time if a closure will be canceled, Orso-Delgado said Caltrans doesn’t penalize contractors if they don’t. That’s part of the problem with phantom closures, he said.

“There’s no teeth behind it,” he said. “There’s no penalty behind it. We need to fix that, first of all.”

Fire officials say the breadth of phantom closures raises concerns.

“Without knowing why it happens, it does cause some level for concern,” said Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association. “There definitely could be a negative impact for response.”

Orso-Delgado questioned whether the phantom closures posed a public-safety issue. He said he had not heard any complaints from local fire chiefs or first responders.

“I understand if we’re reporting stuff and it’s inaccurate we need to do better,” he said. “But to go to the point that we’re putting lives in peril, I don’t think that’s really true. And that’s the piece that frustrates me.”

Asked whether a fire engine detouring around a non-existent closure and unnecessarily slowing its response time was a public-safety issue, Orso-Delgado said: “We can debate that. We can sit down and debate that. I don’t think that’s the point. We’ll talk later.”

Then he walked away from a reporter. He didn’t return a subsequent message for comment. Cartagena, the Caltrans spokesman, did not respond to multiple e-mails.

Ghio said he will ask fellow fire chiefs whether they’ve had problems with the list at the next meeting of the fire chiefs’ association. Ghio has spoken with Orso-Delgado about the issue.

“He seems very cooperative,” Ghio said. “He wants to give the best information possible. We’ll find out if it’s an issue.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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