Will Sacramento freeway closures cause a ‘Carmageddon’?

Is Sacramento about to face a “Carmageddon” of clogged freeways and gridlocked surface streets this spring?

That’s the rising fear among some local leaders who say the state Department of Transportation is not giving them enough information on its plans for a series of lane closures on several central Sacramento freeways in May and June.

As of this week, Caltrans officials said at least one major series of closures is certain. The agency will close three lanes of the busy W-X section of the Capital City Freeway through central Sacramento for three weeks starting in early May for major road repair, then will close three lanes in the other direction in late May through mid-June.

“It’s going to be pretty bad,” Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton acknowledged.

Local traffic officials say the W-X closure is likely to cause commute-hour backups that will spill onto Interstate 5, Highway 99, Capital City Freeway and Interstate 80, and clog city streets as drivers seek alternative routes.

But those may not be the only freeway closures drivers will face.

A Caltrans contractor has proposed closing a lane in each direction on the Pioneer Bridge – the freeway span over the Sacramento River between West Sacramento and Sacramento – at the same time as the W-X closures. Those closures would allow repaving of the bridge.

That contractor, Myers & Sons Construction, told The Sacramento Bee on Friday that Caltrans has said it wants to hold off on the Pioneer Bridge closures until the W-X closures are over. But Caltrans official Keaton said this week his agency has not yet made a decision on when the Pioneer Bridge lane closures will happen. Nor has it decided whether another set of proposed closures on I-80 through Natomas, where a carpool lane project is ongoing, will take place during the W-X closures.

The uncertainty has some top Sacramento city officials fuming, saying it’s inhibiting their ability to plan for increased surface street traffic, and to organize fire, police and ambulance contingency plans.

“I’m disgusted right now,” said Jerry Way, the city of Sacramento’s public works chief. “There isn’t a lot of confidence right now.”

West Sacramento fire officials say they fear crews could be cornered, unable to respond quickly to calls.

“My concern is safety,” West Sacramento Fire Chief Rick Martinez said, “whether we will be able to get through traffic reasonably to just answer calls.”

Martinez said his city is hoping Caltrans will deploy a helicopter and provide traffic cameras at key spots to give live traffic feeds to emergency personnel and city traffic engineers.

West Sacramento officials also requested that Caltrans postpone the W-X lane closures until summer, after schools get out and when more workers are on summer vacation. West Sacramento officials say they are concerned about how people will be able to get to and from River Cats baseball games, especially if drivers fleeing the freeways try to cross the river on the narrow Tower and I Street bridges.

Keaton said the highway agency considered doing the W-X work in summer, “but our community partners asked us to avoid closures during the California State Fair in July.”

With the clock ticking toward May, Caltrans officials say they hope to come to some conclusions about lane closures in the next few days.

Keaton said Caltrans is talking with its contractor on the I-80 project in Natomas to determine if there is other work the contractor can do on that project in the coming months, rather than lane closures.

The agency’s priority, he said, is to get the W-X job done in May and June. Caltrans has launched a website, called Fix50.com, to offer details.

The work on the eastbound side is planned for May 2 through May 22. The westbound side is planned for May 28 to June 17. Work during those periods will be conducted 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Caltrans officials say they will keep some traffic flowing in each direction by switching eastbound traffic onto some westbound lanes, then reversing the switch the following month. That means cars and trucks will be going in opposite directions on the same side of the freeway for a month at a time, separated by temporary concrete barriers. Traffic in one direction will be squeezed into two lanes, the other direction into three lanes. Caltrans officials say they expect traffic to flow at half its normal speed during construction.

Highway engineers said they thought about shutting down only one lane at a time so they could keep most of both sides of the freeway open throughout the project, but they decided that full directional closures will dramatically speed the construction.

The project cost has been set at $46 million. However, the state will offer its contractor $150,000 daily bonuses up to a maximum of $1.5 million for every day less than a month that each direction’s closures are in place. The contract includes a daily $150,000 penalty to the contractor for every day of work beyond 30 days if closures are still in place.

Officials say the road surface on the elevated freeway is cracking from years of traffic and water intrusion, and in need of a redo. Caltrans will add 4 inches of road surface made of concrete reinforced with shreds of steel. Crews will also widen the freeway shoulders to allow more room for disabled cars to pull over and for emergency vehicles to get through. Earthquake strengthening also will be done.

The project will not add lanes to the freeway or widen ramps. Officials said it likely will help relieve some backups by providing wider shoulders so disabled cars or vehicles in crashes have more room to pull off the freeway. That extra space also will allow tow trucks and other emergency vehicles to get to trouble sites more quickly.