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Interstate 80 commuters in Sacramento run into congestion, but discover new ‘express’ lanes

Just weeks after downtown’s Fix50 freeway closures came to a merciful end, Sacramento commuters find themselves dealing with another freeway reconstruction headache – this one on Interstate 80 through Natomas.

Caltrans’ $133 million freeway repair and expansion, currently the largest in the region, involves adding several new lanes and rebuilding old ones along a 10-mile stretch from West El Camino Avenue to Watt Avenue.

The I-80 freeway rebuild has been continuing for nearly three years, generating gripes from drivers about the project’s seemingly slow pace. The state agency recently required its contractor to rip up and redo two miles of a newly poured carpool lane because the concrete had cracked. The project is not expected to be finished until late 2015 or early 2016.

State officials defended their approach. “That’s a long, 10-mile stretch of an aging highway,” Caltrans spokesman Gilbert Mohtes-Chan said. “You want to do it right. We’re telling people to be patient. It will be worth it in the long run.”

The latest construction-related lane changes led to a series of eastbound backups over the weekend and on Monday.

Not all traffic on the eastbound freeway Monday was slow, however. With its latest reconfigurations, Caltrans has created the region’s first express lanes by temporarily dividing the eastbound lanes into two parts and funneling the two inside lanes between concrete barriers for a nine-mile stretch. On Monday, traffic in those lanes was light and traveling at the construction zone’s maximum speed limit of 55 mph during the peak of the commute.

Drivers in those lanes are cut off, however, from exit ramps at Truxel Road, Northgate Boulevard, Norwood Avenue, Marysville and Raley boulevards and Winters Street. They can get to Longview Drive, but Caltrans is advising against it, because it requires difficult, quick lane changes. Caltrans officials said the first usable exit eastbound for the two “express” lanes is at Watt Avenue. Drivers on Monday who chose to stay in the outer or right lane – with access to all exits – found themselves in stop-and-go traffic for several miles.

Caltrans officials said the current lane configurations are expected to be reversed next year when similar work is done on the westbound side.

Mohtes-Chan said officials are urging drivers to use the “express lanes” if they do not have to exit in Natomas or North Sacramento. There are two express entrances, one just east of the West El Camino, the other just before Northgate.

Mohtes-Chan said drivers from I-5 who want to get onto eastbound 80 could consider taking 80 westbound instead and using the West El Camino exit to loop back eastward. That allows them to take the first of the two express-lane entrances, avoiding the jam farther up the freeway.

Caltrans officials say traffic congestion could ease in a few days as people learn about the lane changes and find alternative routes. “It’s a learning curve, like at Fix50,” Mohtes-Chan said.

This week’s changes included reducing the freeway eastbound from three lanes to two on a short section between the Yolo County line and West El Camino. That reduction slowed but did not stop traffic headed into Sacramento County from Yolo.

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