The biggest freeway construction project in Sacramento in decades moves into a new phase Sunday, with lane changes that could slow the morning commute for tens of thousands of downtown workers for as much as a year.
In a complicated move called a “double crossover,” crews will shift eastbound traffic on Interstate 80 onto the shoulder and outer lanes to allow two lanes of westbound cars to travel on the eastbound side. Those two lanes will be separated from opposing traffic by a temporary barrier.
That crossover shift will allow crews to close two westbound traffic lanes. Those lanes and the westbound shoulder will be torn out and replaced.
The lane changes, which are expected to be in place by noon Sunday, will slow the morning drive for commuters who take I-80 to Interstate 5 into downtown, and for drivers who use I-80 to go to West Sacramento and on toward the Bay Area.
Caltrans officials say drivers who use I-80 to get to Sacramento International Airport should account for possible traffic slowdowns when deciding how much time to allow for the trip.
“Initially, we expect there to be some serious delays,” Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said. “They should expect a lot of stop-and-go traffic.”
Keaton said downtown-bound commuters should consider using alternate routes, including Business 80, also known as the Capital City Freeway. But the Capital City Freeway also is often congested, and it is possible the I-80 lane changes may cause only a few minutes worth of morning delays for downtown-bound drivers.
The new westbound lane configuration is similar to the situation that existed on the eastbound side of the freeway for the past year, and which allowed crews to rebuild lanes on that side. Those lane changes caused increased crashes last summer and fall, most of them rear-end collisions involving drivers who were distracted or unprepared for freeway traffic to slow and stop in the work zone.
Caltrans made changes after an analysis by The Sacramento Bee revealed the elevated crash numbers. This time around, highway officials are warning drivers to be aware that many motorists on I-80 are passing through from outside the region and won’t know about the construction zone ahead of time.
The lane changes are part of a multifaceted, five-year overhaul of 10 miles of I-80 through North Sacramento and Natomas, between Watt Avenue and the Yolo County line at the Sacramento River.
The $133 million “I-80 Across the Top” highway rebuilding effort was launched in 2011. It involves tearing out and rebuilding four of the existing six lanes. The other two existing lanes have been resurfaced. Two new carpool lanes have been added in the center median.
A fifth lane has been added on the eastbound side between Truxel Road and Northgate Boulevard. Early phases of the project involved widening five freeway bridges, including a large one over the canal east of Northgate Boulevard, to accommodate the carpool lanes.
The drawn-out project has drawn complaints from drivers, including many who say they often don’t see many people working when they drive through the construction zone.
Caltrans officials defend the project, saying it is about three-fourths done. There often are 50-plus workers on site, said Meshack Okpala, the project engineer. About a quarter of the work has been done at night to lessen the impact on daily commuters, he said.
The project has run into several delays, however, and may finish a year behind its original schedule. One slowdown occurred when newly poured concrete in one lane cracked soon after it cured. Caltrans required the contractor, C.C. Myers Construction, to repour that section. Caltrans has estimated the extra cost at $2 million to $3 million. The state and contractor will discuss who has financial responsibility for the extra cost, Caltrans’ Keaton said.
Among the most notable and debated aspects of the project is the lane shift that puts cars on the opposite side of the freeway. Caltrans has billed those lanes as express lanes. Some drivers have complained they feel dangerous because they are lined on both sides by concrete walls. Other drivers say they like the lanes because they allow traffic to pass quickly through the construction zone at 55 miles per hour, while other lanes have slowed to a crawl.
Caltrans is encouraging any westbound drivers who don’t have to exit the freeway in North Sacramento to use the new “express lanes.” They start just east of the Winters Street exit and end just east of the Truxel Road interchange. Drivers in those lanes will be allowed to transition onto the Interstate 5 interchange ramps.
Caltrans officials said they are continuing to ask drivers to be patient. They estimate the project will wrap up by late summer 2016.
“We’re talking about 10 miles of continuous construction, that is something we have never seen before, at least for this area,” Keaton said. “The size of it is the remarkable thing.”