Back-Seat Driver

This freeway bottleneck angers everybody. Caltrans says: Hold tight, we’ll fix it.

The Capital City Freeway approach to the American River is the most congested freeway in the region.
The Capital City Freeway approach to the American River is the most congested freeway in the region.

State highway officials are laying plans for what may be the most expensive freeway expansion project in modern Sacramento history. The goal: To finally unclog what has been the region’s biggest bottleneck for years.

The problem is the daily and weekend jam on the Capital City Freeway over the American River where traffic often comes to a halt in both directions, causing a ripple effect that sends cars onto other freeways and even through some neighborhoods.

Caltrans is looking at four project options. Three involve widening the existing bridge to add lanes. A fourth proposal is notably different. The state is considering building a new bridge a few hundred feet to the northwest.

The new bridge alignment would eliminate the tight freeway curve that exists on the south side of the river, a curve that is sharper than current freeway standards advise. But it would cut through land planned to be part of Sutter’s Landing Regional Park.

Caltrans then likely would tear down the current bridge. But officials said there may be a scenario where that bridge would remain in place if, for instance, Sacramento officials felt they had some other use for it.

Freeway widening

One option Caltrans is studying for widening the Capital City Freeway at the American River includes a new bridge and a straighter route.
Map of freeway project 
The Sacramento Bee

All four options could include a reversible lane, allowing cars to travel in different directions at different points during the day. The expansions also would include carpool lanes and a separate area on the bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Environmentalists and American River Parkway advocates have expressed concerns about the project’s impacts on the river and habitat around it, and say they are monitoring Caltrans’ plans as the process moves forward.

The 3.4-mile work area would start at J Street on the south side of the river and run just beyond Arden Way on the north side.

The total cost of the project likely will top a half-billion dollars, Caltrans project manager Clark Peri said.

“Those (congestion) numbers are going up, year after year,” Peri said. “It is not just confined to commute times. Saturday and Sundays, it is congested then too. Add to that, we get more accidents once it is congested.”

Caltrans launched a website last week to offer details and updates on the project, including a page where residents can offer opinions. The state also plans a public open house Oct. 5 in the Cal Expo administration building, 3 to 7 p.m. to display plans and solicit opinions.

The project is so massive that the planning, environmental studies, engineering and fund-gathering process likely will take six years, Peri said. That means construction will not begin before 2023, and the project won’t be finished for another four years after that.

Caltrans officials had for years shied away from committing to the project, partly because of the cost, but also because most policymakers and planners in the Sacramento region agree that widening freeways generally has the adverse effect of inviting people to drive more, which ends up causing more long commutes and more congestion in the long term.

But traffic analyses by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments indicate that unblocking the Capital City Freeway would have positive regional effects that reach beyond Sacramento County. “It is like the central artery,” said SACOG planning official Matt Carpenter. His agency allocated some planning money. “We realized how important improvements there would be. Finding a solution to that freeway will have a real impact (regionally).”

Funding is not yet set. Caltrans and Sacramento planners say they expect state transportation funds to materialize over time, and more federal funds to be available for multimodal projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There also continues to be talk of a transportation sales tax measure on the 2018 or 2020 ballots to raise funds for road fixes that could provide money for the project.