Back-Seat Driver

Should bicyclists ride on I-5 freeway if it’s the shortest commute route?

The county this week is closing the Jibboom Street bridge for six months for repairs. Few car commuters will even notice. But for a number of cyclists who use that route through Discovery Park to get to work, it’s prompted a drastic-sounding question:

Can they possibly ride on the Interstate 5 freeway bridge to get from Natomas to downtown?

The idea is not entirely crazy. Last year, when Discovery Park flooded during a rainy winter, making the Jibboom bridge unusable, Caltrans allowed cyclists to run the gantlet on I-5, riding on the shoulder between Garden Highway and Richards Boulevard. A handful of hardy pedalers did it.

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton appeared to quickly put the question to rest last week. He said, in an email to The Bee, that the state won’t allow cyclists on the freeway as an alternate route during the Jibboom bridge construction: “Caltrans’ position is that the use of I-5 by bicyclists is not allowed except when flooding of the park and crossing occurs.”

Few people in the cycling community, if any, by the way, think that riding a bike just feet from two-ton metal missiles going 65 mph is safe or advisable.

Jim Brown of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates called designating I-5 as an alternate bike route “ridiculous.”

His question: Why are Sacramento cyclists stuck in a position that they are even wondering whether Caltrans would allow them to ride on the freeway?

“This closure demonstrates a chronic deficiency in the region,” Brown said. “We don’t have enough all-weather bridge crossings.”

It’s uncertain how many cyclists will be inconvenienced this winter, but it’s probably more people, counting commuters and recreational riders, than you’d think, especially when spring arrives and seasonal cyclists hit the roads.

Brown said his bike group counted 287 cyclists using the Jibboom Street bridge in a two-hour period on a Tuesday afternoon in May, prime biking season, a few years ago. The Jibboom bridge is the green truss bridge just west of I-5 that drops into the park, and leads to a road over to Garden Highway in south Natomas.

With the bridge closed, Natomas cyclists this winter will have to head a few miles east to Northgate Boulevard and up onto a thin, precarious-feeling sidewalk along Highway 160 into downtown. Or they can cross near there at the converted rail trestle past the Blue Diamond company plant.

But those routes are susceptible to winter flooding as well.

There is a possible permanent solution. Sacramento Regional Transit officials have talked for years about building a new bridge over the river a few hundred yards east of the Jibboom bridge to run light rail trains from downtown to Natomas and eventually out to the airport.

SacRT officials said the bridge could accommodate bikes and pedestrians as well. The city of Sacramento a few years ago engaged them in talks about adding a couple of lanes for cars too.

That project has been challenged by American River Parkway advocates who do not want another big bridge infringing on the river environment, especially one that carries cars.

The bigger problem for bridge advocates, though, is money. The city and SacRT tried to get some funds for the new bridge last year as part of the Measure B transportation sales tax, but that measure fell just short of the 67 percent it needed for passage.

The federal government often offers grants, but that seems less likely for this bridge, given that the Trump administration this year proposed killing the federal agency that helps fund light rail projects.

Another possibility is for the city to work with Caltrans to build a safe bike and pedestrian addition on or alongside the I-5 bridge. Caltrans says it doesn’t have plans to do that, though, and city officials are not pushing for it.

For now, Natomas area cyclists’ best bet is the Northgate/Blue Diamond route. They also could try the North Natomas Transportation Management Association’s “Natomas Flyer” morning and afternoon commuter shuttle, which has three spots for bicycles on it. And there is the Sacramento Regional Transit bus #11, which also has a bicycle rack.

Click here for a drone video of the Jibboom Street bridge, shot by Bee photographer Hector Amezcua.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak