Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Caltrans’ Fix 50 project won’t add new lanes

After $46 million worth of work, and two months of disruptive lane closures during its Fix50 project, Caltrans will deliver a bigger, better freeway to get commuters through downtown easier than before, right?

Sorry, highway officials say. The big Fix50 project, which kicks into high gear next week, is a bridge rehab project, not a freeway expansion. When the W-X section of the elevated freeway reopens all lanes in late June, commuters will experience the same congestion as today, and the same merge headaches. There will be no new lanes, no ramp improvements.

“It’ll be a smoother riding surface, it will look newer, but you aren’t going to get any capacity increase,” said Caltrans project manager Rodney Murphy.

Caltrans says its goal is merely to stop the 48-year-old freeway, basically a pair of bridges, from crumbling.

The state’s contractor, C.C. Myers and his crews, will rebuild the cracking road deck – grinding the surface down a half-inch, then laying a series of 4-inch-thick concrete slabs on the top. Workers also will widen the eastbound direction median shoulder and outside shoulder by 2.5 feet each, then do the same on the westbound bridge.

They will build taller safety barriers on either side of both bridges, based on new design standards that they say do a better job of handling impacts from bigger vehicles. They also will reinforce more than 100 concrete pillars below the twin viaducts, bringing them up to current seismic standards.

Highway officials several years ago briefly thought about adding another lane in each direction but decided that was too complicated, too expensive, and would take too long to build.

Crews have already been closing some lanes of the freeway at night for preliminary work. But the big closures start just after midnight, on Monday night, when workers will haul concrete barriers onto the eastbound lanes of the freeway, between 18th and 24th streets, blocking off the interior three lanes.

It will take about two weeks to grind, repave and restripe those three lanes. Crews will then reopen those lanes for traffic, and close the two eastbound exterior lanes, as well as the ramps leading to those lanes.

Notably, at that point, Caltrans will close both the eastbound connector ramps to southbound Highway 99 and eastbound Business 80 (the freeway that basically heads north and over the American River toward Cal Expo and Arden Fair).

Once work is finished on the eastbound lanes, the freeway and all ramps are scheduled to be fully open for five days, from May 22 to May 26. Then Caltrans will do the same rehab job on the westbound lanes.

When work is being done on the eastbound side, the entire westbound direction will be open. And, when the westbound side is under construction, the entire eastbound side will be open. Work will be continuous, night and day, seven days a week.

Caltrans officials admit they are launching a project that they know will cause headaches for drivers. The W-X section of Highway 50 serves as a linchpin for the region’s freeway system and carries 250,000 cars a day. Caltrans has an informational site at

Local Caltrans director Jody Jones has said she does not believe congestion will be any worse overall than during Caltrans’ closures of a section of Interstate 5 downtown for repair five years ago, when officials spread the word for drivers to stay away. Freeway backups were not as bad as initially feared.

Others, however, including some local city officials, emergency responders and transit agencies, have said they worry this project will cause worse backups, including on adjacent freeways, as well as heavy congestion on surface streets near freeways.

State highway officials say the work is needed. That elevated section of Highway 50, also referred to at times by Caltrans as the Camellia City Viaduct, was opened in 1968 as part of a larger $10 million freeway addition that ran from 10th Street to the interchange with Highway 99.

Since then, the freeway surface has been pounded by cars and trucks, as well as sun and rain, without major resurfacing, officials said. The surface is now officially “structurally deficient,” and its cracks are spreading at an increased pace, according to a 2010 Caltrans report. The joints and seals between the slabs are deteriorating, causing the rhythmic thumps drivers feel under wheel. Those joints and seals will be replaced.

“We certainly aren’t doing it for the fun of it,” Murphy said. “We have to repair our roads. It is an obligation. It just happens to be a (busy) location.”

Notably, the W-X section of the Highway 50 has a slightly higher crash rate than average for similar freeways, according to a Caltarns’ three-year analysis. The rehab work is not expected to affect that crash rate. But officials point out that the new, wider median shoulders and outside shoulders will offer a bit more room for disabled cars to pull out of the travel lanes, and for emergency vehicles to drive and park on.

Some commuters have asked why Caltrans couldn’t have done the project at nights and on weekends. Murphy, the project manager, said the type of work involved, adding 4 inches to the deck, would mean drivers would not be able to get onto the new lanes each day, because of the height difference between new and old lanes.

“It would be a major undertaking vs. what we are doing,” Murphy said. “This is the fastest way to do it.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee