Caltrans has over-the-top delay on a vital freeway project

The Across The Top freeway-widening project on Interstate 80 took two years longer than it was supposed to.
The Across The Top freeway-widening project on Interstate 80 took two years longer than it was supposed to. Associated Press file

As state lawmakers prepare to take another stab at a transportation funding package, they should consider the Across The Top freeway-widening project to be a cautionary tale.

The project will ease maddening Interstate 80 traffic jams between the Yolo County line and Watt Avenue once the new carpool lanes finally open later this month and in January.

But like a frustrated parent trying to get home on a California freeway at rush hour, the project crept along at a snail’s pace, as The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak detailed earlier this week.

Caltrans took five years to complete it, two years longer than promised. Worse, accidents tripled during a period in 2014, as confused motorists tried to navigate past shifting barriers, Bizjak reported at the time.

There are many explanations: Rebuilding the heavily traveled stretch of Interstate 80 was complicated, and included 10 miles of freeway and six bridges, plus sound walls, drainage and everything else that goes into updating aging freeways. But project managers and engineers are supposed to take such matters into account.

When newly poured concrete cracked on a two-mile stretch, it needed to be torn up and replaced. Although problems happen on big public works projects, you’d think concrete, hardly a new product, could be laid correctly the first time. The main contractor went bankrupt, which added months to the project. But other contractors are able to undertake big projects.

Excuses don’t engender public confidence in Caltrans, especially when Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators are contemplating asking motorists to shell out roughly $4 billion a year in higher taxes and fees to pay for better roads and public transportation.

By law, lawmakers need a two-thirds majority to approve new taxes and fees. Democrats will hold supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate when the new Legislature is sworn in, and could approve the tax hikes without Republican support.

But a sure way to lose swing seats in 2018 would be to over-reach in 2017. They’d be wise to win Republican votes for any transportation package. To do that, Democrats likely will need to offer some sort of overhaul of Caltrans and agree to greater use of private firms.

Soon, the temporary barriers will be removed on the Across The Top stretch of I-80. And for a time, congestion will ease for truckers, commuters and people trying to get away for the weekend. That will be appreciated. But widened freeways become clogged again.

One solution would be to extend a new commuter rail line between Roseville and downtown Sacramento. Someday, perhaps.