Come Tuesday morning, tens of thousands of commuters will face a major challenge when Caltrans closes lanes on Highway 50 downtown for its Fix50 rehabilitation project.
The closure distance is small, from 18th to 24th streets. And not all lanes will be closed. But the impact is likely to be huge. The downtown section of Highway 50 carries 250,000 vehicles a day, connecting Highway 99, Business 80 and Interstate 5. The state Transportation Department and local cities have been trying to get the word out, asking commuters to change their work hours, telecommute, use transit, bike, walk, or try a different route.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
This sounds complicated. What are the basics again?
It is complicated! There will be a series of four, two-week-long closures. Two of them will be on the eastbound lanes, and two later on the westbound side. Each of the four phases will have its own personality and impact. It is going to require a lot of forethought by drivers, and not just weekday commuters. Drivers headed to River Cats games or the airport or on out-of-town jaunts will have to figure ways around the squeeze, too, or deal with delays if they choose to go through the bottleneck freeway section. Theres an interactive map at sacbee.com/transportation that you can click to see how the closures will evolve through May and June.
Are we facing Carmageddon, where no one will be able to get anywhere? Or will it turn out to be much ado over little, like the Interstate 5 closure downtown a few years ago?
Truth is, no one really knows. This is a unique event. In a way, it is scarier than the I-5 closure. For one, this section of 50 is a linchpin for the regional freeway system, with drivers swooping on and off from several other freeways. There is another reason it could be worse than I-5: Unlike the I-5 project, when Caltrans closed an entire side of the freeway at a time, the agency this time will keep at least two lanes open on a side at all times. What if drivers take that as an invitation to use the freeway, figuring they can squeeze through, instead of making alternate plans? The freeway could become a parking lot miles back. That is Caltrans biggest fear.
When eastbound lanes are blocked, will the westbound traffic flows be normal (and vice versa)?
They probably will. But highway officials say you can expect some slowdowns because of rubber-necking drivers who will ease off the gas as they try to get a view of whats going on along the other side of the freeway.
Why is Caltrans doing this?
Caltrans says the road surface of the 48-year-old elevated freeway is cracking and crumbling. The agency also wants to widen the freeway shoulders a few feet to make more room for disabled cars to pull over and emergency vehicles to get through. There is some seismic work that needs doing. The agency is not, however, adding lanes.
Why do it now, when school is on?
Caltrans officials dont have a lot of options. They dont dare do it around the July 4 weekend. And state officials made it clear to Caltrans not to do it during the State Fair, which happens for two-plus weeks in July. If they waited until after that, theyd run into the start of school in August and September.
Will the work be full time?
Yes, it is 24/7 for the entire two months. That means every night, all night. There is one reprieve: Crews will stop work and reopen the entire freeway for five days in late May, from the 22nd to the 26th, for Memorial Day weekend.
Will any ramps be blocked? Or surface streets?
At certain times, yes. And some of those ramp closures will be significant. Again, check our map at sacbee.com/transportation. It will show you which ramps and which dates. At several points, some of the connector ramps between Highway 50 and Highway 99 and Business 80 will be closed. For that, Caltrans will publicize a detour that involves sending cars out to the Howe Avenue exit where they will use Hornet Drive as a U-turn, sending them back on Highway 50 to use ramps on the other side of the interchange. (Well also publish a map of that detour, and a description, a few days before that U-turn is implemented on May 7)
As for city streets, construction crews already have temporarily blocked 24th Street under the freeway and a couple other lesser-used streets in the project area. Caltrans says there arent any major closures expected.
Why arent they giving us detour routes?
Caltrans local director Jody Jones said the agency prefers to let local drivers review the plans and decide for themselves the best alternate routes. People who live here know what local roads will get them where, she said. They wont all take the same route. You want people to disperse.
Drivers might, for instance use W and X streets instead of the freeway downtown, or Folsom and Fair Oaks boulevards as a freeway alternative. If traffic backs up in West Sacramento on Tuesday, some drivers may try the Tower or I Street bridges. But those streets may become clogged as well, forcing drivers to come up with a Plan C.
And if everyone uses surface streets?
The cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento will have traffic officers ready to be deployed to hot spots to wave traffic through. They and Sacramento County will have real-time traffic cameras feeding them info. Sacramento city officials say their grid system works well in dispersing traffic, allowing drivers numerous options.
Is it worth it to try public transit? Wont buses get caught in traffic, too?
Its true buses will probably get slowed on busy city streets. Freeway express buses can use carpool lanes, although there arent any carpool lanes in the core downtown. Sacramento Regional Transits light-rail system could potentially work well for some downtown workers who typically take Highway 50 or 99 in. The agency plans to bulk up rail service, starting Tuesday morning. The agency has park-and-ride lots at a number of stations. Some cost $1 to park, and get filled. RT has a new riders guide on its website at www.sacrt.com, and will have ambassadors at stations helping new customers. Some peak-hour trains likely will be standing-room only. Riders can bring bikes aboard.
Call The Bees Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.