For more than a decade, Sacramento has been rebuilding the string of interchanges that serve Highway 50, giving each a muscular, modern design, preparing them for an expected east county growth boom in the coming years.
Sunrise was upgraded years ago. Zinfandel, Mather Field and Bradshaw, too. Now, it's Watt Avenue's turn.
Unlike the earlier interchanges, though, the $23 million Watt project, under way since November, includes an extra set of amenities designed to decrease the region's heavy reliance on cars.
Watt will get new lanes in each direction, making it the widest overpass in Sacramento, and its tight merge lanes will be replaced with broader, straighter ramps.
But Sacramento County officials have also added a center lane reserved for buses only, and are building a separate paved pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, with underpasses that will enable those groups to get over the freeway without having to cross streets or freeway ramps.
The result, Sacramento County officials say, will be to turn the section of Watt Avenue at Highway 50 into a multi-use transportation corridor.
"You'll have cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians using one interchange without conflict," project manager John Jaeger said. "As far as I know, there is nothing like it in the state."
The bus "guideway" will run from the Regional Transit light-rail station south of Folsom Boulevard over the freeway to La Riviera Drive on the north side.
Transit officials say they hope the sight of buses driving past stalled traffic will encourage more commuters to try transit.
"Traffic can be stopped, and the buses go flying by," RT General Manager Mike Wiley said during project groundbreaking ceremonies.
Wiley said his agency hopes eventually to extend the bus lane concept to other parts of Watt. But roadway space is limited. The separate bus guideway on the overpass will contain only a single lane.
Buses will have to be scheduled so that two buses coming in opposite directions are not trying to cross the bridge at the same time.
Some residents have expressed concerns about the safety of the four planned bike and pedestrian underpasses, saying they fear someone looking to commit a crime might lurk there.
On a tour of the site last week, Sacramento County's Jaeger pointed out that those underpasses are short, wide and well-lighted. Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to see through each tunnel for some distance beyond as they approach it.
"We've designed these for maximum visibility," Jaeger said, standing at the broad entrance to the first of the underpasses.
Jaeger said the new design will create a more pleasant cycling connection between Folsom Boulevard and the American River.
"It'll provide access from Rosemont by bike to the American River a safe facility that families can use," he said. "With the light-rail station nearby, it'll get a lot of people out of their cars and onto bikes."
County officials said the project, which includes road widening, was launched in part because vehicles have been backing up onto the freeway at peak hours on the tight looping ramps, causing crashes.
"One (main) goal is to reduce delay and congestion in the corridor," Jaeger said.
County Supervisor Susan Peters has lauded the elimination of the interchange's infamously tight eastbound merge lanes, where cars entering and exiting the freeway are forced to switch lanes with each other over a short distance.
"We lose the need to weave!" Peters said.
The expansion won't necessarily mean that Watt Avenue congestion will lighten much over the long run.
Watt is one of only a handful of cross-county connectors over the river, linking Highway 50 and Interstate 80.
It carries an estimated 80,000 vehicles a day. Expected growth in the next decade on South Watt Avenue north of Elk Grove likely will pump that number higher.
The project, which is being constructed by O.C. Jones & Sons of the Bay Area, is expected to be finished in August 2014.
Jaeger said officials also plan at some point to redo the Hazel Avenue interchange.
The county is in the midst of widening Hazel from Highway 50 north to the Placer County line.
Watt Avenue/Highway 50 project
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.