Transportation

I-5 is ‘falling apart,’ and a massive fix is coming. Drivers, buckle up.

How Interstate 5 altered the landscape of Sacramento

Take a look back at the development, construction and opening of Interstate 5, the freeway that transformed downtown Sacramento. Photos are from the Center for Sacramento History - taken by Bee photographers - and the Caltrans archives.
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Take a look back at the development, construction and opening of Interstate 5, the freeway that transformed downtown Sacramento. Photos are from the Center for Sacramento History - taken by Bee photographers - and the Caltrans archives.

On a rainy morning two years ago, a Federal Express truck slid across three lanes of Interstate 5, vaulted the center divider and smashed a pickup truck, killing an Elk Grove man.

The crash set off alarm bells at Caltrans.

Tests showed some portions of I-5 in south Sacramento no longer provided minimal grip for tires. Ironically, other sections had the opposite problem. They're cracked and cratered enough to knock car tires out of alignment, state engineers say.

And, officials determined, the concrete center divider is not tall enough to keep modern trucks from crashing into oncoming traffic.

The state recently reground some freeway sections to give them more grip and put emergency patches on some rough sections. But traffic engineers didn't have the money for a serious fix, they say.

Until now.

Caltrans announced recently it will overhaul much of the 43-year-old freeway from Elk Grove to downtown Sacramento by tapping into new state gas tax revenue as well as some local and federal transportation funds.

The estimated $267 million project will be huge. Caltrans will lay down 10 miles of new pavement. It will add carpool lanes from Elk Grove to the southern edge of downtown. It will install a new, taller center divider. The state also will add new rainwater drainage and pumps, and fiber optics to monitor the number and speed of vehicles.

The project will create commute hassles starting next spring and lasting an estimated three years. Caltrans likely will close numerous lanes and ramps during the project, including a series of 55-hour weekend closures of large portions.

The end result will be what Caltrans calls a new, modern freeway, something needed as Elk Grove grows and as builders add another 5,000 homes in the Delta Shores community near Freeport, starting next year.

"The roadway is falling apart," Caltrans project manager Sutha Suthahar said. Prior to some recent emergency repairs, "slabs were sticking out and people were hitting them and losing their tires."

The state also plans to widen some freeway ramps, add digital message boards, improve bike and pedestrian crossings over the freeway and, if the money is there, reconfigure some lanes to make it easier for drivers to see ahead of them when they transition from northbound I-5 to eastbound Highway 50 on the W-X elevated freeway section.

The project would include some short-distance auxiliary lanes that would run between on-ramps and off-ramps between Pocket Road and Florin Road.

The biggest safety feature will be a new center divider. The current 32-inch concrete center median has proven to be insufficient as trucks get taller and bulkier, Caltrans manager Suthahar said. It will be replaced with a 54-inch-tall divider, which meets modern federal height standards and is aimed at deterring most tall trucks from careening into oncoming traffic.

Caltrans officials say they have known for years the freeway needed work. But the events of December 2015, when hard rains prompted three major crashes in 11 days on a short stretch between Seamas Avenue and 43rd Avenue, made that point clear.

The first crash, involving a hydroplaning FedEx truck, happened at 6 a.m. Had it happened 90 minutes later during the heart of the commute, the death and injury numbers could have been worse.

Eleven days later, a few hundred yards south of the FedEx crash site, a truck spun out again in rainy weather and vaulted that same center median, ending up with the cab on its side in the opposite lanes. Earlier that day, a driver was injured when a car, van and Peterbilt truck collided in the rain, and the car ended up wedged under the big rig.

Caltrans engineers immediately conducted a "skid test" on the freeway and found areas where the pavement did not meet state standards for tire grip ability. The state also did an analysis that showed 27 percent of the crashes on that stretch have come during wet weather, according to documents obtained by The Bee through the state Public Records Act.

Within the month, state crews had reground the surface to create adequate friction. Even then, Caltrans officials considered that a temporary patch.

The new pavement to be used in this year's upcoming project will be a type of "open-grade asphalt" that allows rain water to seep below the road surface.

But the Caltrans I-5 analysis suggested that crumbling concrete is a greater problem on many sections than slick pavement, in part because of increasing truck and car traffic. Post-recession, that has turned what was once an open commute into a typically congested urban corridor.

The freeway now is shouldered by tens of thousands of south Sacramento homes and carries both a heavy load of interstate commercial trucks and local car commuters through downtown.

The project is one of several planned on the freeway. Caltrans also is laying plans to widen or replace the I-5 bridges over the American River north of downtown to accommodate larger trucks, but no date has been set for that work.

The I-5 projects are controversial on two fronts.

The gas tax funding source has been challenged by some tax conservatives as a waste of taxpayer money. Some are mounting a petition drive for a November ballot initiative to nullify the 12 cents-per-gallon tax and car registration fee increases in Senate Bill 1.

Opponents want freeway improvements. But they say the new tax is a waste because they contend the state will funnel the money into the general fund rather than use it to fix freeways.

Sacramento environmentalists, for their part, oppose adding new lanes to freeway lanes, saying even carpool lanes will encourage more suburban sprawl and more traffic and pollution. They point to studies that suggest living near a freeway may be more harmful to human health than previously believed.

"The higher traffic induced by HOV lanes would mean more exposure to toxic pollutants (for) people who live nearby," said Ralph Propper, head of the Environmental Council of Sacramento and a retiree from the state Air Resources Board.

CHP Officer Michael Bradley explains what happened Thursday morning in the crash involving a Fed-Ex truck and a pickup.

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