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    Eastbound traffic, at left, often jams up on the Capital City Freeway just past the E Street onramp as the highway abruptly narrows from five lanes to three. Caltrans plans to widen the freeway to four lanes there to help ease the bottleneck.

Caltrans plans project to ease Capital City Freeway bottleneck in east Sacramento

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 10:23 am

One of the Sacramento region's vintage traffic bottlenecks – the eastbound snarl on the Capital City Freeway – may be in line for a partial pressure release.

But the trade-off will be extra traffic on some central city streets.

State highway officials are pursuing plans to close the E Street onramp in east Sacramento. Doing so will give them enough room, by mere inches, to squeeze another milelong lane onto the freeway from J Street to the bridge over the American River – site of an infamous afternoon traffic jam.

The eastbound side of the freeway currently drops from five lanes to three in the space of a quarter mile near E Street, making that stretch of freeway the worst pinch point in the region, Caltrans local director Jody Jones said.

The reconfiguration, considered minor at a cost of $6 million, would allow the state Transportation Department to extend the fourth lane another mile to nearly the foot of the American River bridge.

"It is going to smooth out traffic and reduce the delay by 10 percent, which is huge for the (price)," Jones said.

Although Caltrans has legal authority to close the ramp, Jones said the agency is seeking input from the city and will check in with area residents as well. Caltrans ultimately will have to do an environmental analysis to justify the change. The ramp closure date is likely three years away, officials estimate.

The concept has already raised concerns from east Sacramento's city councilman.

"I understand from personal experience the bottleneck is one of the worst," Councilman Steve Cohn said. "But that solution seems to single out our neighborhood. It sticks the jam onto our local streets.

"People still have to get on the freeway. They are just going to queue up elsewhere."

The project is part of an ongoing effort by Caltrans to make small, relatively inexpensive changes to the region's busiest freeways in hopes of lightening traffic.

The agency has added a handful of extended ramps on Highway 99 in recent years and plans to add ramp metering lights to the southbound lanes of the Capital City Freeway and Highway 99.

Highway officials say a larger solution to the midtown bottleneck would be to widen the existing three-lane freeway bridge over the American River just south of the Cal Expo and Arden Way area.

But that is prohibitively costly, and would involve numerous environmental hurdles because the bridge extends 2,000 feet over wildland areas of the American River Parkway.

A bridge widening project could happen some day, said Caltrans local traffic operations chief Jim Calkins, "but it's not on the drawing boards" now.

The E Street ramp closure would reduce congestion but not eliminate it, he said.

Instead, it would move the most congested point a half-mile to a mile east. The elevated section of the freeway between midtown and east Sacramento would be less crowded, meaning less exhaust emissions from idling cars in the densely populated area.

It also saves Caltrans from what traffic engineers see as a growing problem on nearby Highway 50, also known as the W-X freeway.

On a weekly basis now, traffic on eastbound Capital City Freeway backs up so far that cars become stalled on the connector ramps from Highway 50, and even onto Highway 50 itself – creating a greater safety hazard.

"It's a shockwave through the (Highway 50) interchange," Calkins said. "It happens now maybe once a week. But, eventually (as traffic increases), it would happen every other day. We can prevent that scenario from happening."

The ramp closure likely would slow traffic around J Street, 30th Street and Alhambra Boulevard as more drivers funnel toward the J Street eastbound ramp, Calkins said. He said he believes the issues will be manageable. Caltrans is conducting studies to determine whether there will be other impacts on city streets.

Highway and city officials also are looking into turning a portion of 30th Street between D and E streets from one-way to two-way to help reduce street traffic.

Caltrans officials say they plan to hold a series of community discussions in the coming months.

Councilman Cohn said he wants to see the state and the city come up with a more comprehensive plan to deal with traffic issues from a variety of potential changes being proposed in that area.

Those include competing plans to build either a new neighborhood called McKinley Village or a state rail repair yard on an empty oval of land on the freeway's east flank south of the river.

The rail line right-of-way in that area also would have to be widened to make room if new intercity passenger rail tracks are added, and if, some day, high speed rail is built. City officials also plan to expand a small park near the freeway's west flank on a former landfill site.

"There is only so much land and there are a lot of things people are talking about doing," Cohn said. "I think frankly the E Street onramp is just a Band-Aid approach. If they really want to deal with the problem, they need to look at a bigger solution."

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

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