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Updated with corrections based on CHP data just received:  accidents spiked in 2015, before the casino opened. But DUI-related crashes are up.

By Miriam Raftery; Jonathan Goetz also contributed to this report

Photo by Jonathan Goetz

July 2, 2017 (Jamul) – Supervisor Dianne Jacob joined Jamul residents Friday in a press conference to share concerns over accidents along an 11-mile stretch of State Route 94.  The group also called for completion of promised roadway improvements that have not yet begun. 

The Jamul Indian Village has issued a response contending that the casino is being unfairly blamed for an uptick in accidents that may be related to other factors, and points a finger at CalTrans and Supervisor Jacob for delays in roadway improvements that the tribe says is due to Caltrans lacking land use authority.

Jacob said there is “clear and convincing evidence” that Highway 94 has “become significantly more dangerous since October” when the Hollywood Casino Jamul-San Diego opened its doors.  According to the California Highway Patrol's statistics, during the eight months from early October through May, 99 collisions occurred along the 11 mile section of highway—more than the 91 collisions for an entire year on average during the past five years. 

(Fact check:  While it's true that 2011-2015 average 91 collisions, a year, this ignores the fact that in 2015, according to the CHP's data, collisions spiked at 136, dropping to 116 in 2016.  Whlie a full-year of data on collisions after the casino opened won't be available for several months, collisions had risen sharply before the casino was around.)

The past eight months included 39 injury collisions, up from 38 injury accidents on average over the last five years. None were fatalities.

A perhaps greater concern is that the past eight months also included 13 DUI collisions, which is an increase over 2014 and 2015, when only 6 or 7 DUI crashes occurred each year. It's unclear how many, if any of the recent DUI drivers, consumed alcohol at the casino.  ECM has asked CHP for details, and also whether accident numbers in past years were steady year-round or may have spiked in winter months.

Jamul Indian Village Chairwoman Erica M. Pinto (right) issued a statement calling Jacob’s accusations linking an increase in traffic and DUI collisions near the casino “completely unfounded and not based on any hard facts.”  She noted, “As the longest residents of East County San Diego, the Jamul Indian Village is deeply concerned about the safety of our neighbors” as well as casino visitors.  “We have  committed over $120 million to focus on public safety, law enforcement, transportation and firefighting” including recently delivering two new fire trucks and starting road improvements.

Chairwoman Pinto notes several points not raised by Jacob.  “According to the reports, the California Highway Patrol has not linked any increase in DUI collisions to the Hollywood Casino Jamul-San Diego.”  She says it’s “preposterous” to blame the tribe for all accidents on the 11-mile stretch of roadway, adding, “There is no discussion about the new wineries and other businesses that serve alcohol” in the area.  She further notes that per the CHP reports, the increase in alcohol-related accidents and arrests began several years before the casino opened, spiking in 2014 and 2015.  “Our casino cannot be blamed for this trend.”  The county’s population growth could also mean more motorists on the road, she said.

Residents also voiced concern over a car that struck a power pole near the casino on Thursday, sparking a brush fire that shut down the highway for part of the afternoon.  It is unclear whether the driver had been to the casino or not. Jacob voiced concerns however that if Santa Ana winds had been blowing, “people would have been trapped on Highway 94.”

Jacob, who opposed the casino, calls it a “danger to motorists,” adding, “Who shares the blame for this? Caltrans..Caltrans allowed this casino to open and issued encroachment permits without completing the needed traffic improvements” including new signals, turn lanes, retaining walls and more.” She notes that even before the casino opened, the highway was among the most dangerous in the region. 

Jacob said on Friday she mailed a letter to Caltrans local director Laurie Berman asking her to block access to the casino until all safety improvements are completed and that will hold Caltrans leadership and other state officials accountable or any injury or loss of life that occurs as a result of their “reckless, irresponsible decisions.”

To date, of six intersections along highway 94 that were slated for improvements when the casino was approved to open, only one has been completed – an area in front of the casino. Construction has not yet begun on the other five.  Jacob also faulted the  Alcohol Beverage Control board for allowing the Jamul casino to be the first in the state granted a temporary alcohol permit immediately upon opening.

Glenn Revell, a retired Sheriff’s official who also heads up Jamulians Against Casinos, a group that filed repeated and thus far unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to block the casino, also spoke. He noted that countywide,  DUI fatalities this year are 16, compared to 19 last year.  It was unclear whether any of those occurred on the highway near the casino.

Kim Hamilton, Editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler and Antler Alerrts, said, “Right now we're seeing crash after crash. About 3:00 yesterday a driver crashed into a power pole and she toppled it. It fell into the dry grass and started a fire; the road was closed from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The road itself is substandard by Caltrans. It's very narrow, it has no shoulders and the power lines run just a few feet off the road. It's an old stage coach road and that's how wide it is. I put out the Antler Alerts and I literally have not been able to keep up with it."

Don Hohiner, principal of Steel Canyon High School, notes that the campus has 2,200 students and trains 1,000 new student drivers each year.  “We cannot tolerate any new hazards,” he said. “Increasing vehicle trips past a school with some impaired by alcohol is not acceptable at all.  It ‘s irresponsible to disregard our safety without mitigating the dangers first.”

Pinto calls the accusations “unfounded” adding it is “another attempt by a few radical opponents of the jamul Indian Village to tarnish the character and reputation of our Tribe.”

There is, however, one clear point of agreement between all parties concerned.  “It is clear whether you like the casino or not, the consensus is that the roads need to be improvement,” Pinto said, reiterating that the tribe has committed $23 million to make that happen.

So why hasn’t it happened?

"It's certainly not the county failing to approve construction where they might be involved, where they meet the state highway, but again we’re right back to if funding isn’t an issue then perhaps somebody at Caltrans could explain to us what the issue is," Revelle said.

Revelle slammed Caltrans and the ABC, suggesting “undue influence” of the agencies. Jacob also voiced frustration with Caltrans.

But Pinto contends, “There are more than a dozen intersections that are currently scheduled to be improved, but Caltrans has been delayed because it does not have land use authority.” She claims Jacob “has it in her power to stop the finger pointing and make our roads safer.” Pinto adds, “We sincerely hope that all parties can come to the table to make our community safer. We strongly believe that when we all work together, everyone benefits.  We call upon our County Supervisor, Dianne Jacob, to step up and help Caltrans make the improvements we have committed to making, to keep our East County roads safe.”

In a letter responding to concerns raised by Supervisor Jacob in August 2016, Caltrans set goals for improvements to be initiatied or completed that have not yet begun.  But the agency also pointed blame at the County and residents for "seeking to impede the Tribe's efforts to acquire the right-of-ways to build the traffic mitigation measures" needed.

East County Magazine is reaching out to Caltrans for their explanation of why the roadway improvements promised have not been completed, and what’s needed to get the work done. We will report back in a subsequent article on their response.