Toll lanes on the Yolo Causeway? State begins tackling I-80 bottlenecks with creative ideas

Commuters and weekend drivers alike have complained for years about traffic bottlenecks on Interstate 80 near the city of Davis and across the Yolo Causeway.

State highway officials say it's time to talk about a fix — a dramatic one.

A 16-mile widening of the freeway through Yolo and Solano counties is among the early ideas Caltrans will showcase during a trio of public meetings this month.

Another potentially controversial approach: financing the project by charging drivers to use the new lane during peak commute hours.

"A lot of people want to see something done," Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said. "People are bringing it up: 'What are you going to do about 80? What are you going to do about the Causeway?’"

The initial idea, Caltrans says, is to build a carpool lane, also known as a high occupancy vehicle or diamond lane, east of Dixon to the Sacramento County line in West Sacramento.

That would widen the freeway in key bottleneck spots that occur where Interstate 80 merges down to three lanes. While the problem affects weekday commuters, some of the worst slowdowns occur when Bay Area and Sacramento residents alike cram onto Interstate 80 for weekend getaways.

Perhaps the most challenging section would be the Yolo Causeway, the 3-mile elevated bridge and berm that crosses the Yolo floodplain between Davis and West Sacramento.

A fourth lane in each direction would extend to the Sacramento River on I-80 at the Bryte Bend Bridge and on Highway 50 at the Pioneer Memorial Bridge, which carries commuter traffic into downtown Sacramento.

The project could cost $400 million. Caltrans plans to apply for state and federal grants to cover the cost.

Project officials said, however, they would consider charging a toll for peak-hour users if the state can't fund the project other ways — and if an economic analysis shows a toll lane makes sense.

“You have to look at all sorts of funding,” Caltrans' I-80 project manager, Johny Tan, said. “It is likely going to be HOV lanes, (but) if it comes to a funding shortage, they may look at different alternatives. It could be toll lanes.”

Tolls are common on Bay Area bridges and on major routes in some other states. But California has limited experience with toll lanes on freeways, which by definition do not charge fees.

The state has toll lanes in Northern California on I-680 and I-580, both in the East Bay.

Drivers pay via Fastrak during weekday morning commutes. Other lanes are free for drivers who do not want to use the toll lane. Toll prices change depending on congestion levels. In 2016, the average price per trip on the I-680 toll lane was $2.47.

Carpools can use the lane for free during the morning commute. The lane is open to all users for free the rest of the day and on weekends.

The state tentatively plans to begin construction of the I-80 Yolo/Solano widening project in 2024.

The project will include improvements to the causeway bike and pedestrian path, Tan said.

Caltrans will hold a series of open houses this month to solicit feedback from residents. The first of this month's three events is Wednesday in Davis.

Officials there said they support the additional lane through their city.

"Improving the chokepoint between Davis and Sacramento is pretty essential," Davis Councilman Lucas Frerichs said. "I think the vast majority of folks … will be thankful to have a more expedited and safer way to pass from one jurisdiction to another.”

Bob Clarke, Davis' public works director, said the project could reduce cut-through traffic on city streets. As people rely more on phone apps like Google Maps, Clarke said, drivers are increasingly willing to ditch freeway congestion and follow phone directions through surface streets.

In Yolo County, that means drivers exit I-80 around Dixon and drive through residential streets in South Davis to save time, he said. If freeway travel time is reduced, drivers might stick to I-80.

“We don’t want high-speed pass-through regional traffic," Clarke said, citing safety concerns and traffic congestion in town. "We'd rather keep it on the freeway."

Clarke said several freeway widening possibilities are being discussed, including a "contraflow lane" option, which would turn the freeway's far left westbound lane into an eastbound lane available only to public transit during peak eastbound travel times, and vice versa.

Frerichs also sees an environmental benefit to the plan: reducing pollution in Davis.

“A lot of traffic sort of sits, very slow-moving traffic coming through Davis," he said. "There’s a lot of emissions there and exhaust that’s being emitted from all this traffic sort of idling on the freeway.”

Clarke said the Davis bicycling community supports improvements to the bike route over the Yolo Causeway. Frerichs said the project could make for a "much more enjoyable ride for people."

He and Clarke also talked about the possibility that the city can create a separate pathway for cyclists riding east of Davis. Cyclists currently must ride along a high-speed, two-lane road to get to the causeway.

All three meetings will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday at the Davis Senior Center, 646 A St., Davis

June 14, West Sacramento Civic Center Galleria, 1110 W. Capitol Ave., West Sacramento

June 21, Sacramento City Hall, 915 I St., Sacramento