Some Sacramento commuters switch to light rail to avoid Fix50 traffic

Vanessa Shun hopped aboard the Gold Line of Sacramento’s light-rail system this week for the first time and had a bird’s-eye view of the delays along westbound Highway 50 caused by the Fix50 construction project downtown.

Agency officials – who say they hope the project prompts some commuters to switch to rail service permanently – said they have seen an increase in ridership in both phases of the project. The percentage increase since the current phase kicked off Tuesday is not yet known, Regional Transit spokeswoman Alane Masui said, but Shun follows the roughly 2,500 additional commuters using light rail during the first portion of road work in April.

To cope with the influx of riders, Sacramento Regional Transit has added train cars to the Gold Line, which saw the largest increase in ridership. The agency also created additional trips and extended the run time for the Gold Line.

For Shun, who works in the Board of Equalization, the switch is temporary. Using light rail costs her 30 minutes of sleep in the morning and adds 30 minutes to her commute home to Rosemont. From her perch on light rail Tuesday and Wednesday, Shun got a good view of Highway 50 on her way into work.

“(Tuesday) I looked out the window and saw it was very congested, so I was glad I took the train,” said Shun. “(Wednesday) I looked out and it was not as bad.”

State highway officials said they believe commuters on westbound 50 were caught by surprise Tuesday, which was the first day of westbound lane closures. Some commute delays topped 30 minutes. A number of commuters reacted Wednesday by changing their routes, altering their commute time, and taking light rail instead of their cars, officials said. Highway 50 and some city streets still saw heavy traffic and some backups Wednesday morning, but the delays were not nearly as severe as on Tuesday.

But, in an odd twist, traffic on westbound Highway 50 into downtown backed up Wednesday afternoon worse than it had during the morning commute, with estimated 20-minute delays westbound in the afternoon, while eastbound traffic out of downtown was light. Afternoon traffic was heavy as well on eastbound Business 80 leaving town, and on Interstate 80 eastbound in Natomas, according to the sacbee.com live traffic map, an indication that some commuters were trying to avoid the Fix50 area.

California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman said evening commute traffic on Wednesday flowed more smoothly than it did on Tuesday, however. “We’re down to 15- to 20-minute delays instead of a half hour,” she said, noting that Wednesday evening’s delays were in keeping with what Caltrans officials had anticipated for this phase of the project.

She said more people likely opted for alternate routes or public transportation on Wednesday. Tuesday’s traffic congestion may have been worse due to residual holiday traffic coming off the three-day Memorial Day weekend, Shoopman said.

The current phase of construction in the Fix50 project is scheduled to last two weeks. The closures involve the three inside lanes of the elevated W-X section of the freeway downtown. The closures will last 24 hours a day until June 10, when they will be followed by another round of closures on the westbound side that may be even more disruptive than the current closures, Caltrans said. That next phase is scheduled for June 11 to June 25.

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said state officials are pleased to hear some commuters turned to light rail. “If that continues, that jump onto transit, that is what we are wanting these folks to do.”

Among those abandoning their cars – at least during the construction – is Keric Ashley, who normally drives downtown to his job with the California Department of Education. He’s been using the Gold Line since the project began in April. And like Shun, Ashley plans to drive his car again once the road project ends.

“I just figured (the highway) was going to be too crowded” during construction, said Ashley, who lives in Rancho Cordova. “And I didn’t want to add to the congestion.”

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