Fix50 gears back up: Westbound closures start Tuesday

The soundtrack of Meta Brandon’s life lately has been a medley of jackhammers, trucks beeping as they back up, and shouts of construction crews. She lives in Sacramento’s midtown neighborhood, close to Caltrans’ Fix50 highway reconstruction site.

“They start at 6 a.m. and go to after dark,” Brandon lamented. “The beep-beep-beep is our least favorite sound. The big crashy-bangy sound is number two. Sorry if I sound cranky.”

While Brandon has been dealing with noise from the ongoing project, including some night lane closures, commuters have benefited from the lack of daytime closures since crews finished repaving the eastbound lanes two weeks ago.

That break is now over. Tonight, state Transportation Department contractor Myers & Sons will begin blocking several lanes on the westbound side of the elevated freeway for what officials say could be the most intrusive phase so far of the two-month-long project.

The big question looms: How bad will the backups be Tuesday? The first phase of the project turned out to be not so bad at all, but this portion affects a greater number of commuters, coming from eastern suburbs such as Folsom, Rancho Cordova and El Dorado Hills.

This week’s closures will be on Highway 50 between the Highway 99 and I-5 interchanges. Two lanes, and in some places three, will remain open. All ramps also will remain open during this third phase, which is scheduled to last until until June 10. The connector ramp from northbound 99 to westbound 50 will be reduced from two lanes to one. A fourth and final set of closures will follow, including ramp closures, from June 11 to 25.

Based on the recent eastbound closures, the westbound phase of Fix50 may not be as bad as Caltrans once warned. There was a two-mile backup, causing a 40-minute delay, last month during the first morning of the eastbound closures. But it never got that bad again. Forewarned, many commuters adjusted routes, switched transportation modes or changed work schedules to avoid the freeway during peak commute hours. Commute delays often were 10 minutes and less.

During the three weeks of eastbound closures, the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans reported that traffic was considerably lighter than usual on central freeways as commuters rode bikes or hopped on public transit.

Heading into this week’s closures, Caltrans officials are warning that congestion could be worse because more commuters use the westbound side of the freeway.

“We’re not patting ourselves on the back yet,” Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said. “I’d love it to go as smoothly, but, truth be told, we’re starting from scratch all over again.”

Caltrans again is asking that drivers try alternative routes and modes. The agency also suggests people who live in communities between Highway 50 and Interstate 80 consider heading up to 80, and coming into downtown via Highway 160, 80 or Interstate 5.

Sacramento Regional Transit spokeswoman Alane Masui said the agency has more light-rail trains ready to go and will extend weekday evening service to Folsom.

Sacramento city officials say they are girding for heavier traffic on city streets caused by commuters exiting the freeway early. Potentially congested areas include Stockton Boulevard, Folsom Boulevard, J Street, W Street and 12th Street heading in from Highway 160.

“Both Sacramento Police Department and our traffic investigators will be out there trying to see where hot spots are,” city traffic chief Hector Barron said. The city reconfigured traffic signals last time, extending green lights at key intersections, and Barron said it would do so again this week.

City and state officials are not recommending any particular alternative routes for drivers. They said the freeway and street system around downtown offers sufficient options that commuters can simply choose the routes that work best for them.

Contractor C.C. Myers said his crews will try to get the work done faster than scheduled, but warned there is more to be done on the westbound side. For the eastbound work, crews reopened all lanes five days early.

“I think it is going to go well,” Myers said. “I’m going to do the best I can to get it done.”

Down by the freeway, midtown residents such as Brandon are girding for increased traffic. Brandon, who lives one house off W Street, says she expects more cars to take the 26th Street exit and whiz by her house.

Still, she is pleased with one aspect of the Fix50 project. In the past, the freeway traffic noise included a distinctive thumping sound as vehicle wheels passed over the seams between the freeway’s concrete slabs. With the new slabs and seals on the eastbound side, that noise is already notably reduced, she said.

“We are not hearing so many of those bump-bumps,” she said. “It’s already better.”