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Look around, Caltrans isn’t the problem

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POSTED August 14, 2017 1:37 a.m.

I made a 319 mile loop trip Saturday.

I drove from Manteca to Sonora Pass to hike Stanislaus Peak. From there I headed to Markleville to meet up with two former cycling buddies I hadn’t seen in 15 years and then back to Manteca In all, it was a 16½ hour trip.

Along the way the roads were basically smooth, the pavement clear of debris, a breeze to drive at the posted speed limits (and a bit beyond at times), well-marked as having ample signs to warn you of any serious curves or dangers, minimal trash, and devoid of surprises save for a four-point buck and several mule deer.

That speaks volumes about Caltrans. The state agency is often maligned for issues that are political and budgetary in nature as well as sometimes when someone is killed and people want to blame the road design.

Caltrans engineers, builds, and maintains what keeps California moving. That includes 15,313 centerline miles of highway (some centerline miles have as much as 10 freeway lanes), inspects more than 12,200 local bridges and maintains 350,000 acres of right of way or roughly an area half the size of Rhode Island.

I went from an elevation of 22 feet on the flat valley floor thorough the rolling foothills and over three high mountain passes of 9,263 feet (Sonora), 8,314 feet (Monitor) and 8,732 feet (Ebbetts). My actual travel time was just under seven hours.

I’m not going to dispute the fact California has a horrendous backlog of pressing highway maintenance and too many aging bridges that need to be replaced. Just like our homes, if we aren’t willing to pay for upkeep they will deteriorate.

That aside what Caltrans has done and is doing is pretty amazing. They have conquered numerous mountain passes — when Interstate 80 was completed the trans-Sierra portion was considered an impressive engineering feat — spanned bays and rivers, laid pavement in the desert, put highways through unstable geological areas, and created bridges that have an extremely low failure rate during major earthquakes.

And they keep them open and running despite massive rainstorms, flooding, snow storms, dust storms (they actually “plow” dust and such in parts of the Mohave Desert), and nature’s debris from rockslides to fallen trees.

Through a combination of state, local, and county roads I can pull out my driveway and into the parking lot at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley some 360 miles away without leaving asphalt. That said, you can go practically anywhere from your home to any place in the continental United States and be on pavement all the way.

That probably would amaze someone a hundred years ago more than a smartphone as it has made going to the store, moving goods, heading to school or church, or any travel less of a major ordeal. It also has made Americans mobile to the point they can commute daily to a job 60 miles away and travel 240 miles one way for a weekend getaway. Going 60 miles in a car a century ago was an all-day undertaking. And while auto technology has advanced it would be worthless without the backbone — our highways and roads. It’s just like your smartphone. It would be virtually impossible to use effectively without the seamless network we all take for granted.

It is against that backdrop some have questioned the “braided” onramps and flyovers of the proposed solution for improving the Highway 99 interchanges with the 120 Bypass and Austin Road. They have suggested Caltrans look at another way or come up with a cheaper solution.

Working within the perimeters of what is in place now and the best practices for traffic flow, road operations, and safety Caltrans is tough to question on this one.

Everything now in place — as well as the original 120 Bypass three-lane configuration with the so-called suicide lanes — were primarily Sacramento political decisions driven by fiscal issues as in not enough available money

Caltrans didn’t set the original design perimeters in terms of lanes. Politicians working with budgets did. What is in place is not inherently unsafe or dangerous. Drive like you are supposed to and the 120 Bypass would be much safer. Caltrans doesn’t design unsafe roads. And when conditions can be precarious they give you ample warming of a curve ahead and the top speed you should attempt to take it at whether it is a curve in the rolling terrain east of Oakdale on Highway 108/120 or on a hairpin turn in the middle of a 25 percent grade on Ebbetts Pass.

If people drove highways as they are designed and signed — as well as adhere to the basic California that dictates you must never drive faster than current conditions allow — the accident and fatality rate would plummet.

Of course, the wild card is human nature. Even so Caltrans takes that into account as much as possible in road designs.

Caltrans — in short — did not design an unsafe transition ramp and approach from the eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99. Nor did they undersign for capacity. Growth happened.

Caltrans couldn’t have built the interchange back in the 1980s to handle anticipated growth by the year 2020 for the same reason they can’t make improvements in the next few years that will handle growth a decade from now or in 2040.

There are countless “bypass” volume situations on California’s freeways. They all cost money. We like to squawk that it would make more sense to put in an extra lane now when it is “cheaper” but we balk to raise the gas tax to maintain what we already have in place.

Caltrans isn’t the problem. We are.








This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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