Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Why is the W-X freeway there?

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

The W-X portion of Highway 50 downtown is an old workhorse getting its first major repair job this month. But when and why was the massive elevated freeway built in the first place?

That question takes us back to 1950s Sacramento, a town with a traffic problem. There was one signature entrance to the city from the west, the Tower Bridge. Traffic on the bridge had doubled in the decade, giving Sacramento a reputation as one of the hardest cities in the state to drive through. One writer in The Bee bemoaned the plight of out-of-town drivers who found themselves stuck in a “monstrous, smog belching serpent.”

“It is reaching the saturation point,” City Councilman John O. Bronson told colleagues in 1959. “We must have another entrance to Sacramento.”

Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr., the state’s great freeway builder, made it clear he wanted not one but several new freeways in Sacramento, in short order. The state started by building the Pioneer Memorial Bridge over the Sacramento River in the mid-’60s. Construction on the crosstown freeway followed soon after.

City leaders initially talked about building the freeway along R, T or U streets – and even across the top of downtown – before deciding on the W-X corridor. Downtown leaders liked the idea of separating local traffic from pass-through traffic. But opponents complained that any freeway in the central area was bad for livability.

One group of residents sent the city a letter saying the W-X freeway and the planned Business 80 north-south – and the big interchange between the two – amounted to “ruthless destruction” of neighborhoods. “It may be progress but it certainly brings unhappiness to many persons, also personal loss,” they wrote. “If they must be provided for those wishing to get somewhere in a hurry, please build them outside the city.”

When the W-X was built, one victim was Southside Park, which lost its two southern blocks and a third of its lake.

Another debate involved how much of the freeway should be built on mounds and how much should be a bridge. The state wanted more of it on mounds because that was cheaper. The city wanted more of it as a bridge, allowing more parking and less walling off of neighborhoods. The two sides compromised, putting some of it on berms, and some of it on columns.

The main part of the crosstown freeway opened in 1968. It cost $10 million. (The current rehab job costs $46 million.) Miss Sacramento waved a starter’s flag on the interchange at Business 80, then called the 29th and 30th Streets Freeway. A few years later, Interstate 5 was added through downtown.

For the first time, out-of-towners didn’t have to use surface streets to get through Sacramento. As for the monstrous, smog-belching serpent, that’s not so easily subdued.

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