Back-Seat Driver

Tony Bizjak: Caltrans plans to widen Capital City Freeway – but when?

Cars heading east are backed up under the train overpass after driving past the E Street entrance to the Capital City Freeway in 2013. Traffic data say the section of the Capital City Freeway accounts for one-third of the Sacramento Valley region’s annual hours of freeway delays.
Cars heading east are backed up under the train overpass after driving past the E Street entrance to the Capital City Freeway in 2013. Traffic data say the section of the Capital City Freeway accounts for one-third of the Sacramento Valley region’s annual hours of freeway delays. Sacramento Bee file

It’s the Sacramento region’s worst freeway bottleneck, by far. Every day, traffic comes to a standstill on the Capital City Freeway near the American River. The snarls are even worse some Saturdays.

Now, after years of debating what to do, state and local leaders say they’ve reached a resolution: It’s time to drop the small-town mindset and go for a big fix.

Caltrans has begun laying the groundwork for a $700 million freeway widening from midtown to the junction with Interstate 80. That includes widening the American River bridge to add a new multi-use lane in each direction, as well as building wider shoulders for stalled cars to pull over, a separate lane on the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, and other improvements. The proposed project area is 8 miles long.

The questions: Where will the money come from, and how long will it take to get done?

Caltrans officials say the project is so big and the funding sources so uncertain that it may not happen for a decade. That timeline is typical for major transportation projects in California.

But the region’s population is expected to grow in that time, including new housing adjacent to the Capital City Freeway at McKinley Village, putting more pressure on an already failing freeway. That section of the Capital City Freeway accounts for one-third of the Sacramento Valley’s freeway delays, which state highway data pegs at 3 million wasted hours.

Sacramento public works chief Jerry Way wants a more aggressive timeline. “That freeway goes right through our living room,” he said. “We need to expedite this. We can get this done in less than 10 years.”

Traffic analyses by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments indicate that unblocking the Capital City Freeway would have positive regional effects that reach beyond Sacramento County. “It is like the central artery,” said SACOG planning official Matt Carpenter. “We realized how important improvements there would be. Finding a solution to that freeway will have a real impact (regionally).”

A few years ago, Caltrans considered simply closing the E Street onramp and adding a brief extra lane, based on a traffic analysis that showed that would ease the bottleneck. But as traffic increased post-recession, state and city officials concluded they need to take “a much bigger bite of the apple,” Way said. “We came to the conclusion we have to stop this small-town thinking. We have to play big to get big money.”

Caltrans and Sacramento planners say they expect new state transportation funds to materialize over time, and more federal funds to be available for multimodal projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

“If we’re not ready, we know we’re not going to get it,” Way said. “We need to be ready to go.”

SACOG this month allocated $9 million to Caltrans for project planning. That includes defining the scope of the project, conducting environmental studies and obtaining permits and other approvals, then applying for grants when they become available. It also involves working with state, federal and local agencies, advocacy groups and private companies such as Union Pacific.

The state says it is looking at expanding in two phases. The first involves a variety of changes, most notably a new lane in each direction from J Street on the south end to Arden Way on the north side of the river. The second phase involves working from Arden Way east to Interstate 80.

Buses and carpools will have exclusive rights to the new lanes. Those high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes revert to “mixed flow” for solo drivers to use during nonpeak hours.

Caltrans’ Sacramento-area planning chief Marlon Flournoy said the decision to build HOV lanes stems from the state’s efforts to avoid inducing people to drive more, which can inadvertently create more congestion later. The state also is engaged in a decade-plus effort to create an interconnected network of HOV lanes on all local freeways, hoping that will encourage more carpooling and bus travel on freeways.

“We are being strategic about how we address capacity-increasing projects,” Flournoy said. “The idea is the reducing of vehicle miles traveled, and focusing on and increasing ‘people through-put’ by promoting alternatives such as carpooling and transit.”

Flournoy said the state is committed to making the rebuilt Capital City Freeway “multimodal,” most notably by adding a bike and pedestrian travelway on the bridge over the river, separated from cars, to connect to existing bike trails on both sides of the river. The state also would change freeway ramps to make them more accessible for buses and safe to cross for cyclists and pedestrians.

“We want to think about the bigger picture on this corridor,” Flournoy said. “Collectively, we decided we need to think about the long-term vision of how we want this corridor to behave.”

Caltrans, meanwhile, plans to spend $137 million to scrape and replace the bridge deck and do other maintenance and repair work, much like it did on the Fix 50 project last year. That work is expected to occur in about five years and will help set the bridge up for the widening project to come later.

The bridge expansion is one of several plans in the works to make it easier for people to get across the American River to and from Sacramento’s central core – and take some of the load off the Capital City Freeway.

Sacramento Regional Transit and the city of Sacramento are planning to build a bridge for light rail, cars, cyclists and pedestrians spanning the river between downtown and Truxel Road in South Natomas.

State and local officials also plan to build an extra rail track between Roseville and downtown Sacramento to allow up to 10 Capitol Corridor passenger trains daily between the two cities.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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