Even though Orchard Road is included on the coveted list of state funding for local road projects, residents who have been battling for increased safety on the busy thoroughfare said they feel demoralized by project specifics.
The Imperial County Department of Public Works is planning a rehabilitation of the street. It was among the projects outlined at an April 10 community forum.
The 100 priority projects include two small sections of Orchard, a quarter mile south of Edwards Road and from Bailey Road north to the Alamo River Bridge. It does not incorporate the critical section where a majority of homeowners reside--those who have formed the Orchard Road Neighborhood Alliance to fight for increased safety measures including reduction of truck traffic and a lower speed limit.
Public Works Director John Gay gave a presentation on the projects to be funded under state Senate Bill 1. Passed in 2017, it increased fuel taxes and vehicle-registration fees to pay for road repairs.
"We finally got on the list. Hooray," Mary Helen Dollente, an Alliance member, said sarcastically during the forum. "But when I looked at it, it was very disappointing since it did not address our safety concerns. When the State Route 7 extension from the Mexican border was completed, they didn't include us (for input on truck on routing). So, I asked John Gay, are we now waiting for Assembly Bill 1056 to include repaving?"
AB 1056 is a bill supported by Assembly Transportation Committee Members Eduardo Garcia (D), whose 56th District includes Imperial County, and Jim Frazier (D-11th). It would change requirements for an area to be defined as a residential district.
Such a declaration for Orchard Road between Edwards and Haven road would facilitate lowering the speed limit to 25 miles per hour as the Alliance has requested. Under current law the stretch does not have enough homes to qualify as a residential area for a 25 mph limit.
Bowing to insistent resident complaints, the county in late 2018 lowered the speed from 45 to 55.
However, residents contend many vehicles still speed and endanger pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as students using a school bus that stops at Orchard and Nimura roads.
The Assembly is expected to discuss AB 1056 on April 22.
Reached by phone April 11, Alliance member Marv Wood questioned AB 1056's effectiveness.
"Regardless if it is or not approved, we've got to continue pressing for an alternative commercial truck route. That's 90 percent of the problem," he said.
Wood explained the key to achieving that goal is including the California Department of Transportation and city of Holtville in a meeting with county public works.
"Caltrans could be the linchpin to solving the alternative truck route," he said. "At this point they have not posted any signage either north or southbound indicating alternative routes so, truck drivers rely on word-of-mouth. And they use Orchard Road to save maybe 20 minutes."
Wood questioned what role politics plays in Public Works decisions. Along with the priorities noted on the project list were conditions to determine how soon a project gets constructed. This included rollovers from the prior year's list and road-condition assessments.
Yet it also weighs recommendations from such organizations as Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, Imperial County Farm Bureau, Imperial Valley Velo Club, California Highway Patrol and the county's school districts.
"The (Public Works) meeting showed to me they are catering to special interests and he (Gay) even said so--highlighting the need for roads to feedlots and Keystone Road, where Holly Sugar is located," he said.
In an April 11 phone interview, Dollente said Naomi Robles, a public works analyst, explained to her earlier that day Gay's agenda focused on projects specifically sustained by SB-1 and that the county is still working to address the Alliance's safety concerns.
"She was very informative," said Dollente. "But it wasn't at all clear at the meeting when, if they had explained it, why they were doing things this way. So I probably would have been less critical."
Public Works did repaint the center, double-yellow lines on Orchard.
"They're painting between Edwards and Haven Road," said Ramon Sanchez, a county equipment operator, as he worked on that job. "It's much easier to see now and lets drivers know they cannot pass. They're also re-painting the fog lines (shoulder striping) and the ‘Stop ahead” caution on the roadway. I'm sure they've re-stripped it before, but I don't know when."