Back-Seat Driver

Better economy helps jam Sacramento-area roads, but will we pay for improvements?

Traffic congestion in the Sacramento area is high again, making commutes a time-consuming part of the day.
Traffic congestion in the Sacramento area is high again, making commutes a time-consuming part of the day.

With the recession over, Sacramento-area freeways and roads are crowded again. Some say more than ever.

We hear complaints that Sunrise Boulevard is a parking lot during commute hours. A 20-minute drive on Highway 99 in Elk Grove can turn into 60 minutes with just one fender bender. The Capital City Freeway over the American River is a no-go zone even on weekends.

As the housing market heats up, bringing more people here, how do you keep a bad situation from getting worse?

Sacramento County is considering asking voters to OK a new transportation tax next year for anti-congestion projects as well as basic pothole filling. But the real sign of desperate times comes from fiscally conservative Placer County, where normally tax-shy officials are thinking of floating their own transportation sales tax in November 2016.

“With the economy coming back, traffic is getting worse and people are feeling the effects of the lack of investment in transportation,” said Celia McAdam, chief executive of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency. She and others point out that the state gas tax has not been raised in more than 20 years. “I think that people are starting to have it impact their lives.”

Her agency is holding meetings to take the public’s pulse for a potential half-cent, 30-year sales tax. There’s a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Rocklin Event Center. Another is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Lincoln City Hall. Transportation officials have projects in mind, but are interested in the public’s thoughts about a tax and ways of spending the money, McAdam said.

The big ticket project for Placer would be to reconfigure the Interstate 80 interchange with Highway 65, which is a regional bottleneck. But that brings up a tough question for Placer and the whole region: If you widen freeways and interchanges, will it encourage more cars and end up causing more congestion?

The answer, experts say, is yes, if wider freeways encourage county leaders to approve more housing that feeds more cars onto those roads. Susan Handy of UC Davis, director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, published a review of various studies last month for the state Air Resources Board that suggests a widened freeway can fill up again in just five to 10 years.

Placer officials realize they need to offer alternatives to avoid recrowding the freeways. They are talking about helping out on the financing of a planned rail track between Roseville and downtown Sacramento that will allow the state’s Capitol Corridor passenger train system to dramatically increase daily commuter runs between south Placer, Sacramento, Davis and the Bay Area.

Transportation construction is not cheap. The redo of the Interstate 80-Highway 65 interchange could cost more than $400 million. The new rail track is expected to cost $275 million.

Readers, do you know of congestion hotspots in need of fixing? Is there is a way to attack the problem without just widening the road? Email us or comment on The Sacramento Bee’s Facebook page.