Commuters in North Sacramento are about to get some breathing room after five years of pinched lanes, closures and traffic jams due to construction on Interstate 80.
Caltrans’ Across The Top freeway widening project will hit a landmark moment this week with the opening of a 10-mile carpool lane on the westbound side, stretching from near Watt Avenue to the Yolo County line. Weather permitting, Caltrans plans to open that lane on Saturday. A similar lane in the opposite direction will open a few weeks later.
Drivers, many of whom complained about the massive project’s slow pace, will not be the only ones feeling relieved. Caltrans officials acknowledged this month that the $136 million freeway remake, the region’s biggest in decades, was a headache for them as well.
The state’s private contractor for much of the project, C.C. Myers Inc. of Rancho Cordova, ran into deep financial difficulties in the middle of the project and eventually filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The company kept the state in the dark about its problems even as work fell behind schedule, state officials said.
The project, launched in 2011, is now more than two years behind its originally projected fall 2014 finish date. While the likely opening of the carpool lanes in December is the last major step for the project, not all the work is done. Crews will return next spring for finish work, including smoothing out some rough sections of the new road surface.
Caltrans officials say they believe the public will like the end product, which they described as two projects in one, a freeway widening coupled with major reconstruction work.
Crews ripped out and replaced four of the freeway’s original six lanes, installed a new drainage system, built several miles of soundwalls and added a series of auxiliary outer lanes that run from one onramp to the next offramp. The main focus, though, is the 10 miles of carpool and bus lanes designed to reduce congestion.
It required numerous lane and ramp closures over the years. But the freeway, a key commute and commercial goods corridor, remained open to traffic throughout.
“Hopefully all that will be in our rear view mirror, and people will be flowing a lot smoother without having to stop during peak periods,” Caltrans project manager Jess Avila said. “I think it will make a big difference.”
Numerous drivers complained about not seeing many workers on the site. That was in part because 80 percent of the work was done at night and weekends, allowing construction trucks to move more freely and minimizing impacts on daytime commute traffic, Caltrans officials said.
But there were several work stoppages and slowdowns. Though Caltrans did not reveal it at the time, they say the project pace slackened dramatically in 2014 and 2015 due to Myers’ difficulties.
“Things were going great, and all of a sudden they were (slowing) down to a halt,” Avila said. “That was about seven months where there was very little production going on.”
Avila said the state was aware of the slowdown and talked with Myers officials about ways to get back on track, but did not learn until later that Myers was in financial trouble. “They (didn’t) play all their cards.”
Attorneys and former officials with the now-disbanded Myers company declined comment.
Myers dropped out of the project at the end of 2015, signing responsibility over to a project partner, Bay Cities Paving & Grading. Bay Cities has since sued Myers for unpaid work at another Bay Area project, and accused Myers of hiding the fact that it had been insolvent for some time.
The Rancho Cordova-based Myers company, once famous for fast freeway fixes, closed operations completely earlier this year and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June. “Faced with increasing market challenges and inconsistent transportation funding, C.C. Myers Inc., is closing its doors for good,” a company official wrote at the time.
The company was no longer affiliated with its founder, C.C. Myers. He lost the company after personal bankruptcy in 2008 and formed a new company in 2010 called Myers & Sons, which does freeway work for Caltrans in the Sacramento area, and competed for jobs with the C.C. Myers company.
A Sacramento Bee review of inspection reports shows project work continued to be slow initially after Myers dropped out. At times, Bay Cities crews were not on the job site at all, having been assigned to projects elsewhere. Bay Cities attorney John Gladych said the company ultimately was able to ramp up and worked well with Caltrans to finish out the majority of the job this year.
Contractor problems were not the only reason for delays. Caltrans discovered more extensive concrete damage than expected when crews dug up the two outer truck lanes, prompting the state to build thicker lanes, adding time to the project.
Caltrans stopped most work on the project in 2014 so that all four eastbound lanes would be open as an escape valve for traffic that Caltrans was diverting during the nearby Fix 50 resurfacing project on the W-X freeway in downtown Sacramento.
Also, in 2014, Caltrans ordered Myers to rip out and replace two miles of concrete in the westbound carpool lane because the newly poured concrete had begun to crack. Caltrans at the time estimated the repair to cost $2 million to $3 million and contended that Myers should pay for it.
The issue was not resolved, however, when Myers went out of business. Caltrans officials declined comment on whether that means the state is on the hook, or whether Bay Cities will absorb the extra costs. Bay Cities attorney Gladych contends the state should pay the extra costs, which he puts at $6 million, because Caltrans provided Myers with the specifications for the concrete mix that ended up cracking.
Administrative costs from the extra work seasons has pushed the project’s initial budget of $133 million to $136 million, Avila said. Despite the problems, Avila said the state is pleased overall with the project, and that it was done in a shorter amount of time than it would have been if Caltrans had not combined the rehabilitation and widening work into one project.
The project funding came from a variety of sources, including federal congestion reduction funds, state infrastructure reconstruction bond funds, state air quality improvement funds and local transportation sales tax funds, Caltrans officials said.
The carpool lane additions are part of a Caltrans effort to build an extended carpool system on most major Sacramento freeways. Caltrans plans to add carpool lanes next on Interstate 5 in south Sacramento and to extend the Highway 50 carpool lane corridor by adding new lanes between Watt Avenue and the Highway 99 interchange downtown.