Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Caltrans allowing commercial trucks in fast lane on I-80

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

Hoping to reduce congestion on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in North Sacramento, Caltrans officials this week temporarily suspended a state law that requires certain large trucks to stay in the freeway slow lanes.

The congestion problem arose over the weekend when crews reconfigured the eastbound lanes in the Natomas, Del Paso Heights and Robla areas to make room for construction work. The new configuration notably divides the freeway’s eastbound side into two parts – two inner “express” lanes separated by concrete barriers from one and sometimes two outer lanes.

To Caltrans’ chagrin, the outer side of the eastbound freeway immediately got jammed with big commercial trucks and local commuters, while the two “express” lanes were only lightly traveled.

“Our spotters were telling us (that) folks weren’t using the express lanes,” spokesman Dennis Keaton said. “They were staying to the right.”

So Caltrans sent word Wednesday to trucking associations and drivers unions that they will allow truckers to use the express lanes for now. We drove through there on Thursday to check it out: Truckers had definitely gotten the message. While we crept along in stop-and-go traffic in the outer lane, dozens of trucks in the express lanes whizzed by at normal 55-mph construction-zone freeway speeds.

Drivers in the express lanes, though, are cut off by the concrete divider from using any of the offramps between I-5 and Longview Drive. There are only two entrances to the express lanes. One is near West El Camino Avenue, which allows through traffic, such as weekenders between the Bay Area and Tahoe, to avoid the local traffic crunch. The other entrance is just west of Northgate Boulevard. That one’s a tight merge, though.

The shifting of the eastbound lanes allows room for crews to rip out and rebuild the eastbound side’s old lanes. The current express lanes are temporary, by the way. Eventually, those lanes will become the carpool lane and adjacent lane for the westbound side of the freeway.

Caltrans says the current lane configuration could be in place for up to a year. Then the process will be repeated on the westbound side. The $133 million project, currently the largest in the region, will be finished in 2016. It includes new carpool lanes, new exterior merge (or auxiliary) lanes, widened bridges, and reconstructed mainline lanes.

Drivers have complained for some time about the apparent slow pace of the project, saying they often see few crews working. The project contractor, C.C. Myers, Inc., has not responded to The Sacramento Bee’s calls. (The company is not affiliated with C.C. Myers, the person. He now runs Myers & Sons, the company that did the Fix50 job). Caltrans spokesman Keaton said most of the work so far has been done at night, but crews soon will begin 24-hour operations.