Sacramento employers prepare for Fix50 freeway gridlock

Fix 50. The two words alone should be enough to send a shudder through Tuesday morning’s commute. But Sacramento-area employers say they – and their employees – will be prepared for the construction and gridlock that’s sure to come their way.

Employers up and down the U.S. Highway 50 corridor say they are girding for the weeks ahead, offering everything from additional shuttles and free transit passes (UC Davis Medical Center) to vanpools and telecommuting (SMUD) to information on alternate routes.

“We are prepared for it, for sure. It’s been on our dashboard for quite awhile,” said Sacramento Municipal Utility District spokesman Christopher Capra. “We’re urging employees to stay off the roads.”

Good advice. Three of the five lanes on eastbound Highway 50 between 18th and 24th streets in Sacramento will be closed for repaving just after midnight on Tuesday morning. In the coming weeks, those closures will be followed by others in both directions of the elevated freeway, four phases in all between Tuesday and June 25.

Think slow-to-a-crawl traffic and one-hour delays if not enough Highway 50 drivers alter their commutes in some way, said Caltrans chief Jody Jones. Now, Jones said, think differently – buses, light rail, biking, telecommuting, working flex hours, or finding secondary routes to work.

It’s Saturday. There’s still time.

“We are really encouraging people to use this weekend to look at the trips they make and find other ways to do it,” Jones said. “People who live here know what local roads will get them where,” she said. “They won’t all take the same route. You want people to disperse.”

SMUD’s Capra lives in El Dorado Hills and travels down the hill to SMUD’s S Street headquarters near 65th Street in Sacramento, exactly the commute that will take the brunt of the Fix50 project.

But Capra doesn’t do the driving. He joins a company vanpool in Placerville for the drive down Highway 50. Car and vanpools have been a part of SMUD’s commuter mix for some time now. Tuesday’s van will pull out a little earlier than its scheduled 6:11 a.m. departure to feel out any delays, Capra said.

Meanwhile, the utility is offering Regional Transit passes so employees can take advantage of RT’s nearby University/65th Street station, along with smartphone telecommuting options. And, “there’s an enthusiastic group of folks,” Capra said, who already bike to work.

Golden 1 Credit Union’s headquarters on Cal Center Drive near Watt Avenue and Folsom Boulevard also is near light rail and “quite a few take advantage of Regional Transit,” said Scott Ingram, a Golden 1 vice president. The credit union is distributing e-mail updates and Internet links to help employees plan alternate routes.

“It’s a project that the entire region needs,” Ingram said of Fix50. “It will improve traffic though the heart of the city, but it’s unfortunate that we’ll have to endure a little inconvenience.”

Some won’t have the option of staying off the freeway. Highway 50 is among the routes the area’s trucking industry depends on to move goods from port and warehouse to market.

“Our folks need to get products out to consumers,” said Shawn Yadon, chief executive officer of the Sacramento-based California Trucking Association. “We’ve got to make that happen as an industry, and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

At UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, “the expectation is that everyone will adjust their schedules and come to work on time,” said David Ong, a UC Davis Health System spokesman.

UC Davis Medical Center, with its trauma, burn and stroke centers, is close to Highway 50 and stands “to have the greatest impact of all the hospitals in the area,” emergency department director Katie Hesse said in a statement. Her emergency room staff is staggering schedules to allow managers to cover for employees who may be stuck in traffic.

Last month, Caltrans altered its original plans to simultaneously close freeway lanes in both directions after ambulance and fire officials expressed worries that they wouldn’t be able to get their vehicles through.

“Caltrans’ changes to 50 make it better than it was, but it’s still going to have a significant impact on us,” Vincent Johnson, UC Davis Medical Center’s chief operating officer, said in a statement, adding that the hospital is “doing everything we can to mitigate the effect” on patients and employees.

But Med Center employees will have help: added shuttles between UC Davis and Sacramento; free passes to different public transit systems throughout May and June; audio and videoconferencing options; free shuttles to the hospital from downtown Sacramento for employees who use the bus or train; and extended shuttle service hours to and from RT’s 39th Street light-rail station.

Even with weeks of planning, Tuesday will still be a test for many employers and employees across the region.

“The main feeling is uncertainty,” said the Med Center’s Ong. “No one knows what the effects will be until it happens.”

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Editorial Notebook: Assume everyone is packing, and other tips to survive Sacramento’s Highway 50 carpocalypse

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