Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: I-80 through Natomas gets squeezed; Highway 50 gets a corset

Beginning this weekend, drivers on Interstate 80 in the Natomas area of Sacramento will have to deal with a new round of freeway lane closures that could slow commute times by 10 to 15 minutes, Caltrans officials warn.

The closures are part of a $133 million effort to repave all lanes of that freeway along a 10-mile stretch, and to add new carpool lanes and ramp lanes. The project area runs from the Business 80 split to the Yolo County line.

The eastbound lanes of the freeway will be reduced from three lanes to two on the section of the freeway between the Yolo County line and West El Camino Avenue. Immediately east of there, traffic will be shifted onto three newly constructed lanes between West El Camino and Watt Avenue. Drivers on the two interior lanes eastbound will not have access to offramps during a several-mile stretch.

The speed limit in the area will be reduced to 55 mph. Traffic fines will be doubled.

The new configuration in the eastbound lanes will last approximately one year, Caltrans said. When eastbound work is done, Caltrans will do similar work, with closures, on the westbound side. The project, which has been underway for two years, will not be completed until late 2015 or early 2016.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said in a news release that the work is necessary to preserve a stretch of the freeway that serves both as a local commute route and as an interstate commerce corridor. “It is a critical link between California and other states that helps power the state’s economic engine.”

Corseted columns

Highway 50 downtown recently got a face-lift up top. Now, it is getting fitted with corsets down below.

One hundred forty-six of the freeway’s support columns are being enveloped in three-eighths-inch steel jackets to strengthen the pillars for the possibility of earthquakes.

The seismic retrofit work costs $3.2 million, Caltrans officials said. It is one of the last parts of this spring and summer’s big Fix50, a project to bring the bridge portion of the 46-year-old freeway to modern standards. “Without proper confinement, the column will lose its ability to support the structure,” Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton.

The three-story-tall jackets are molded to fit the angled freeway columns. Each leg is getting enclosed by two half jackets – sort of a like a hot dog between two buns. The jackets are bolted together, then welded along the seams.

We went out there to look, having heard the welding is a spooky sight. Indeed. Each welder’s torch creates a bright, hot-looking purple light, seemingly hovering like an orb next to the column. Sparks and a puffs of smoke waft over the morning commute traffic on 21st Street. A construction official warns not to look directly at the purple light, though. It could damage eyes.

Caltrans officials say the oftentimes noisy work will continue through the summer.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee