The roar of tractor-trailer rigs rattles the windows and the nerves of residents along Orchard Road south of Holtville as the growth of border commerce increasingly clashes with a once-tranquil rural neighborhood.
Mary Helen Dollente and Lorena Castro wait for the school bus on
Orchard Road, Holtville, September 5, busy with truck traffic nearly daily.
While that scenario has played out for decades nationwide throughout the fringes of burgeoning urban areas, that is of little solace to homeowners such as Marv Wood, whose family has lived at Orchard and Edwards roads since 1960.
"You feel the vibrations of truck traffic shaking the windows and foundation of the home," he said. "Fact is, Orchard Road was never designed for 55 miles per hour or for a heavy volume of commercial trucks. And testimony to that is the deteriorating roads."
Following the opening of the Calexico East Port of Entry in 1996 as the county’s sole portal for commercial traffic crossing the international border, residents say there has been a substantial increase in truck traffic. They added they are increasingly concerned with pedestrian, bicycle and especially school bus safety, stressed Wood.
"We're looking for solutions and we want to be part of those solutions," said Wood. "And hopefully those solutions arrive soon and bring a certain peace of mind for residents."
Orchard Road is the main entry point to Holtville from the south. It formerly was a rural byway, though it did carry trucks to and from the city’s sizable agricultural operations.
However, several years after the port of entry opened Orchard was connected to the new State Route 7 that runs from the port to Interstate 8 on Orchard’s south end. Trucks also travel Route 7 and Orchard to go through Holtville and access Highway 115, west of Holtville, that travels north and leads to access to Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley.
While the state has oversight on Route 7, past the interstate Orchard is in an unincorporated area and as such is under Imperial County jurisdiction.
Residents have consistently appealed to the county Board of Supervisors for relief, to no avail, they maintain.
On September 11, the Orchard Road Neighborhood Alliance will meet with Imperial County and Holtville city officials at Holtville City Hall at 6 p.m. to explore resolutions.
Ahead of that forum, on Sept. 4, six of the 50 participants of the Alliance gathered at the home of Edward and Mary Helen Dollente at 1929 Orchard Road offering testimony to daily hazards. They included Wood, Lorena Castro accompanies her children to a school bus Alicia Salgado and Rosalie and
stop on Orchard Rd. in Holtville, September 5. Bardo Campos.
Rosalie Campos, who lives at Orchard and Nimura Roads, said there is a lack of adequate signage alerting motorists to residential traffic with which they must share the road.
"There's definitely a lack of enforcement even with a stop sign (at Nimura)," she said. "They're still speeding and don't slow down until they have to stop."
Said Mary Helen Dollente, “We're the only county road that has these conditions: 25 homes on both sides of the road between Edwards and Haven, about a half mile, and because it's a county road, with a speed limit of 55 mile per hour and commercial traffic." County Board Chairman Ray Castillo, whose district includes the Orchard Road area, said the county will be working to repave Orchard since it needs repair due to the amount to truck traffic.
Concerning residents’ request to reduce the speed limit in the area, Castillo mentioned Orchard is not considered a residential area since it doesn’t have enough houses. However, the county expects to seek special state legislation to designate it residential.
“We are working with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia to help us with legislation to exempt Orchard Road so it can be a residential area so that traffic speed can be reduced and install the proper traffic signals,” Castillo said.
But residents fear the situation is urgent. Wood recalled on that June 28 a vehicle traveling north toward downtown Holtville veered off Orchard and rammed into the fence in his yard. The driver fled without notifying him. Damage was estimated at nearly $600. It was the second time his fence was damaged by a motorist.
Salgado fears a worse crash stating for truckers perched high up in the cab of their rigs the small stop sign at Orchard and Nimura Roads is difficult to see. "Some trucks carry liquefied petroleum gas," she said. "So it's a disaster waiting to happen. Our priority is safety."
Speaking to a solution, Wood said, "A combination of devices: reduced speed limit (25-45 mph) postings, trailer-mounted traffic message signs alerting motorists to a speed zone ahead, enforcement, and prohibit or divert commercial truck traffic to an alternate route would be reasonable," urged Wood.
Yet speed limits cannot arbitrarily be changed, pointed out Marcelo Pienado, district division chief of the California Department of Transportation. The state Vehicle Code sets speed limits on divided and undivided highways.
Before speeds can be lowered, engineering studies must be performed to determine an appropriate speed, Pienado said. For residential areas or business districts statutory speed laws can adjust speed limits without engineering studies.
"We have a plan to send truck traffic to I-8 with a package of signage on SR-115 and SR-7," said Peinado. "But if Imperial County does not restrict trucks on Orchard, then signs become meaningless. We have to work together, otherwise trucks will continue to use Orchard Road."
Yet truckers prefer Orchard Road convenience. Francisco Arrera is a tractor-trailer driver for Santoyo Transport LLC.
On his way to Los Angeles to deliver tortilla flour he was stopped on Cedar Avenue in Holtville near the Family Dollar Store. Arrera said he drives Orchard Road nearly every day and relies on it to get to large municipal destinations north, saving him 15 minutes.
However, Salgado maintained there are options for truckers. "If a trucker says he saves 15 minutes using Orchard, what that's telling us is he could use I-8 but we need Imperial County Public Works to cooperate with Caltrans." she said.
But a review of the area shows diversion efforts could be complex and ask truckers to go miles out of their way. If trucks coming north on Route 7 to reach Highway 115 are directed to I-8 rather than proceeding north on Orchard the next exits are Bowker Road and Highway 111, both more than five miles away.
Bowker is a battered two-lane road with a school, Meadows Union. Highway 111 is a four-lane divided highway but is about two miles further than Bowker.
Directing truckers east to I-8 exits at Bonds Corner Road or Highway 115, would send them miles out of their way and back through Holtville, though not on Orchard.
Residents, meanwhile, remain hopeful an agreeable solution can be reached.
"We want to stay positive," said Mary Helen Dollente. "We've been having meetings with the county to keep the ball rolling on our safety concerns. That's the big thing."
Mario Conde and Gary Redfern contributed to this story.