Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: The woman who painted the Tower Bridge gold

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

Jody Jones, Caltrans’ Sacramento district chief and one of the early female leaders in the department, just retired after three-plus decades of road building so she can enjoy life in Paradise (as in: town of). We talked with her about her most memorable moments.

Fix50, the recent project that required freeway closures downtown, is not really at the top of her list. But, she says, it did show that you can make major changes on the freeway without major disruption. It was one of those rare projects, she said, where almost everything went right.

More memorable, though, was when the state Transportation Department asked the public to vote on which color the state should paint the Tower Bridge. The old Sacramento River span – then a faded ochre – was historically gray with “robin egg” blue pillars at each end, a popular color back in art moderne days. But, in Jones’ eyes, “it was really ugly.” Caltrans offered Sacramento voters three options: forest green, burgundy or gold. Gold won by a landslide. Twelve years later, it looks great, Jones said. “Now, it’s like the backdrop of every TV station in Sacramento.”

Not all memories are golden, though. There was the time Jones and other Caltrans officials showed up in Placerville to show residents designs for a new freeway the state wanted to build. It would have required eliminating some of Placerville’s rustic downtown. That was a major oops, Jones said, and a turning point in how Caltrans does business locally. After swabbing its wounds, Caltrans asked for public input. The result: The redone road still has stoplights, but it functions well, and downtown still stands.

The most emotional project for Jones may be one that is not yet finished, the construction of a full freeway interchange at Highway 99 and Riego Road. Highway 99 used to be one of California’s notorious “blood alley” highways, a high-speed road crossed by numerous local roads. Caltrans has slowly eliminated those crossings. The Riego Road project, one of the last, got held up a few years, though, with tragic results. Last year, Caltrans maintenance worker Dean Patton was hit and killed there while he was on his way, ironically, to a ceremony to honor Caltrans employees killed while working. “That will never happen to anyone else there once it is built,” Jones said.

Her short list also includes the new Lincoln Bypass, which celebrated the opening of its second phase this month, and is the longest new freeway in California in a decade, Jones said. She also takes satisfaction from the rebuilding of I-80 from the dirt up between south Placer and the Nevada state line, a project Caltrans bit off in pieces for so many years that many travelers don’t realize they are driving on an entirely new and modern freeway.

Jones is retiring, she says, so she can run for a permanent spot on the Paradise Town Council. Appointed early this year, she’s the lone female. No surprise, she brings an infrastructure-first mentality to the task. Her main goal? Modernize the town’s sewer system.