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  • Hector Amezcua /

    Ismael Perez, right, of Sacramento, with Teichert Construction, works Wednesday on the bridge near the Big Bend exit on I-80. The final touches were put on the rebuilding of I-80 from Auburn to the state line by Caltrans.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    A Caltrans sweeper makes its way west on I-80 near the Crystal Springs exit in Placer County on Wednesday. The resurfacing of I-80 will make for a smoother drive for motorist traveling from Auburn to the state line.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Jason Jones, a Caltrans highway maintenance worker, prepares to install an I-80 sign for a ceremony in celebration of completion of construction on the interstate from Auburn to the state lineat the east side of the Donner Pass rest area.

Caltrans entirely rebuilds I-80 from Auburn to Nevada state line

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 - 6:30 pm

A half-dozen years ago, then-Caltrans Director Will Kempton says he was so embarrassed by the cracks and ruts while driving Interstate 80 that he wanted to pull over and cover the Caltrans logo on his car.

Wednesday, Kempton, now head of a coalition of companies that worked on the road, joined government officials at the Donner Summit rest area to celebrate what they call the biggest freeway renovation project in California in years.

It took 15 years, $820 million and countless lane closures and traffic slowdowns, but as of later this month, officials of the state Department of Transportation say they will have finished rebuilding I-80, often from scratch, from Auburn to the Nevada state line – 423 miles worth of lanes. Travelers will still have to deal with a handful of lane closures in both directions over the next two weeks as crews scramble to finish work on both flanks of Donner Summit before snow sets in.

The renovation project has speeded travel for the estimated 170,000 commercial trucks, recreation travelers and other drivers who use the interstate east of Sacramento daily. I-80, which runs from San Francisco to the New York area, is one of the busiest commercial corridors in the country. An estimated $4.7 million worth of consumer goods crosses the summit each hour, Caltrans officials said.

Nearly a third of the overall project’s funds – coming from state and federal transportation accounts and California voter-approved bonds – went toward rebuilding the high mountain sections of the freeway, where during a half-century of winters, cars and especially big rigs gouged the pavement with snow chains, creating what Truckee Mayor Carolyn Wallace Dee, a history buff, called “wagon ruts.”

The original I-80 was built between 1957 and 1964 as part of the Federal Highway Act. State officials timed the portion of the project from Sacramento to Truckee in the late 1950s to finish in time for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, so fans would not have to drive single file in winter up winding old Highway 40.

But even as dignitaries lit a symbolic Olympic torch at the summit Wednesday and posed for pictures on a victory stand, evidence already was forming a few yards away on I-80 that time –and truck travel – will leave their marks again. The far-right truck lanes leading to the summit, which were rebuilt a couple years ago, already show slight indentations where truck tires pass.

“We’re never really going to prevent rutting,” said Dave Catania, Caltrans construction manager, driving his SUV on a tour of the mountaintop final work areas Wednesday. This time around, though, highway officials say they feel they have built a longer life into the new freeway. The old roadway was topped with 10-inch concrete slabs. The new one has slabs that are 12 inches thick in key high-mountain sections. That will give crews, in the years ahead, several extra inches of concrete to grind flat when ruts get deep.

The department also installed slabs of different lengths on key sections of the freeway, in hopes of reducing the rhythmic bouncing that happens to trucks when crossing from slab to slab. Instead of same-length slabs, the new concrete sections are built in a sequence of 10, 12, 14 and 16 feet. Catania said that should reduce truck up-and-down movement.

“There’s nothing worse for pavement than trucks bouncing,” he said. “It just tears it up.”

The series of renovation projects started in the late 1990s after highway officials decided the freeway had outlived its functional life. Early on, Caltrans built a bypass route around Truckee. Since then, work crews have jumped from spot to spot along the highway east of Auburn. An estimated 3,000 workers participated, mainly from May to October each year.

In some places, the entire freeway was removed and replaced. At several spots, the old freeway’s concrete was ground up and reused in the base of the new freeway. At other spots, workers left the old freeway in place, and glued a new concrete slab on top.

“These 15 projects have brought I-80 back to its original glory while updating it to modern standards,” said Rick Land, a Caltrans chief deputy director.

Upgrades include numerous water run-off detention ponds and sediment basins so that freeway water is filtered before flowing to adjacent creeks. The agency put new traffic sensors in the pavement and better lighting at exit and entrance ramps. Workers replaced old post and cable barriers with concrete in potential crash areas, and in spots where snow removal equipment sometimes hits the barriers. Caltrans replaced bridge roadways and topped them with a “sacrificial layer” of polyester concrete that can be replaced every seven to 12 years without having to dig into the main road surface.

Several state and private transportation experts lauded the project, but said the state still faces tough times with much more infrastructure work to do on roads as well as transit.

“Funding from these (bond) programs is exhausted and the traditional sources of transportation funding cannot keep up with the needs of a growing state,” Kempton said. “Our economy, our quality of life and the future of our state depend on that investment.”

Driving along the last work zones near Donner Lake, Caltrans construction manager Catania said he and workers have a sense of accomplishment.

“This was a big push for years,” he said. “It was something exciting, something to have on your résumé.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916)321-1059.

Read more articles by Tony Bizjak

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