Watt Ave. interchange signals new traffic era in Sacramento


The big Watt Avenue interchange project at Highway 50 is nearly complete after two years of construction headaches for motorists. Early reviews are positive, although some of the project’s novel features have drivers wondering where they legally can go.

Long one of the Sacramento region’s busiest crossroads, the Watt interchange is now its first freeway overpass with separate routes for bicyclists and buses, away from cars. It signals a new era of multifaceted transportation where car traffic gets its due, but no longer is treated as the main way to get around.

The new bike and pedestrian path loops under the freeway’s on- and off-ramps on a route that feels open and placid despite being yards from a freeway. The bus lane runs along the center of Watt Avenue, bordered by curbs to keep cars out. The 1.5-mile express bus lane provides the Sacramento Regional Transit bus agency with a first step toward its long-term goal of creating “bus rapid transit” corridors on major streets.

Most prominently, though, the $40 million reconfiguration provides Watt’s 80,000 daily car and truck drivers with more lanes, broader freeway ramps and safer turns. The project adds a car lane in each direction on the Watt overpass. Gone are the tight freeway loop ramps that forced drivers to weave between each other to get on or off the freeway.

Sacramento County project engineer John Jaeger said rebuilding a major interchange with unusual components while keeping traffic flowing was a challenge.

“This is a one-of-a-kind project,” Jaeger said. “It is kind of blazing a new path. It’s been tricky ... like graduating a kid through high school.”

It’s been tricky for drivers, too. For much of the past two years of construction, east county motorists found themselves stuck in traffic at the interchange. Sacramento County officials at one point apologized for temporary lane alignments that caused particularly bad backups.

The project isn’t quite finished. The bike trail portion doesn’t open until mid-January, and there is landscaping work to do. Buses won’t start motoring down their dedicated lanes for six to nine months. But the new lanes and ramps for cars have been fully open for several weeks, and commuters say they generally are pleased.

Among them is county Supervisor Susan Peters, who fielded complaints about construction-related jams while searching out alternative routes for her own commute. “I could feel people’s pain,” she said. “I am very happy it is open. In the last couple weeks, you can see a large improvement with the signals and lanes functioning.”

Larry Whitmer back in June described the construction crunch as a “debacle” for fellow drivers. This week he reported: “No complaints, all good.”

Jane Jonsson, who also found the construction period difficult, said the same. “It seems like the bulk of the issues have been resolved. There has been much improvement.”

Steve Woodward was less impressed. “Maybe it’ll be safer than before, but it is hardly faster,” he wrote in an email. “It took me 10 minutes to exit from westbound 50 onto northbound Watt this evening at 5:30.”

Watt Avenue commuter Stephan Thomason, who described the bus lane as “pretty far-out,” said he is already seeing drivers using a portion of the bus-only lane on a short section where it’s not separated from cars by a curb. He wonders what will happen when buses start using it.

The new interchange isn’t a cure-all for Watt Avenue’s problems. Upstream, at the intersection of Watt and Fair Oaks, cars regularly back up in the afternoon. Jaeger said the problem may be tough to resolve. The county has talked about adding a right-turn lane from northbound Watt onto eastbound Fair Oaks. But Jaeger said that idea is “cost prohibitive” at the moment because widening the road would intrude on an adjacent gas station and apartment complex.

Sacramento transit leaders and bicycling advocates say they’re pleased with how the new interchange meets their needs. County officials worked with those groups for help on the project design.

The bike portion was significant – $6 million of the overall $40 million price tag. The bike and pedestrian path offers safe access to the American River recreation trail for residents of Rosemont and planned new subdivisions south of Folsom Boulevard. The county designed the path’s passageways as underpasses, not tunnels. They are short, wide and well lit, Jaeger said, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to see through each passage for some distance beyond as they approach.

“It looks like a great solution for separating bike and pedestrian traffic in a busy and complicated area, and doing it in a coherent and comfortable way,” said Jim Brown of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, who toured the project this month. “Freeways are some of the biggest obstacles in our region.”

Mike Wiley, head of Sacramento Regional Transit, said his agency is training bus drivers to use the “bus-only” lane. Although it is a single lane, RT will time approaching buses so that both north and southbound buses can use the lane.

“We are excited about this,” Wiley said. Ultimately, RT officials hope to work with the county to extend bus lanes farther north on Watt where possible. In places where there isn’t room, Wiley said, the agency will look at creating “queue-jump” signals at intersections, allowing buses to bypass cars and get a head start.

The new bus-lane has a sign at each end with a big red X and the words: Bus only.

“There is the psychological advantage to the customers on board the bus to flow free with everybody around them stuck in traffic,” Wiley said. “For people stuck in traffic, it might encourage them to think about riding transit.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.