Mayor Steve DeBrum contends the 120 Bypass carnage triggered primarily by impatient and/or inattentive drivers trying to get to southbound Highway 99 isn’t simply a concern of Manteca residents.
The mayor looks at the list of victims — fatalities and major injuries — in more than 400 serious accidents over a five-year period involving seven deaths and 289 injuries tracked by the Manteca Fire Department — and notices relatively few victims from Manteca.
The hometowns of the high concentration of 120 Bypass victims of eastbound traffic from Union Road to the Highway 99 transition include Modesto, Salida, Turlock, Ripon, Ceres, and Merced plus a liberal spirnking of people from out-of-state.
“It (120 Bypass safety) is a regional issue,” DeBrum noted.
DeBrum — besides working with state and San Joaquin County leaders — has been bending the ears of elected leaders in Stanislaus County in a bid to get them on board to keep pushing for a solution that will reduce the carnage. When fender benders are tossed into the mix, the frequency of accidents is essentially a daily occurrence with some days having two or more mishaps. Almost all are in the two-mile stretch headed east that slows down and gets backed up to make the transition to Highway 99.
Caltrans is moving forward with a series of short-term projects to try and improve safety. The first, that is expected to get underway next month, is the installation of an additional electronic warning sign between Union Road and Airport Way on eastbound 120 Bypass that is tied into four traffic monitoring installations using cameras to give motorists real time updates on slowing and backed up traffic. The project is costing $578,000.
The ultimate project DeBrum is pushing for is an additional transition lane from the 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99.
That, however, is not as straight-forward as it may seem. The Austin Road interchange with its overpass built in 1955 poses a major roadblock.
Not only are there off and on ramps in close proximity to the 120 Bypass/99 interchange, but the Austin Road bridge makes it impossible to squeeze in another transition lane with a reasonable merging distance.
There are two alternates being considered for the long-term improvement.
The first could cost as much as $40 million. It would widen the connector to southbound 99 to two lanes, construct braided ramps (that are physically separated from freeway lanes) at the Austin Road interchange and replace the Austin Road crossing to provide an additional southbound 99 through lane. In some instances braided ramps require constructing bridge structures to send traffic above other lanes.
The second would cost upwards of $29 million would widen the connector to two lanes, permanently close Austin Road on and off ramps and replace the Austin Road overcrossing to provide an additional southbound 99 through lane.
The long-term project is proposed for funding with help from Measure K sales tax and savings from the Proposition 1B projects for Highway 99 improvements through the Central Valley as well as federal money. The funding has not been confirmed.
DeBrum noted the goal the San Joaquin Council of Governments and Caltrans has put in place to tentatively start work in the summer of 2021 is fairly aggressive considering what has to be done.
It is why he wants to strengthen the regional resolve to get the 120 Bypass safety concerns addressed to make sure the project gets top priority.
And while DeBrum said “even one death is too many” the bloody history of the 36-year-old bypass needs to be changed.
When it first opened it wasn’t full freeway status. While there were on and off ramps, the California Transportation Commission at the time under the leadership of then Caltrans Director Adrianna Giantucco limited funding to allow only for two lanes and one lane alternating back and forth in each direction. The result was what drivers called “suicide lanes” where two lanes of traffic would squeeze back into one while oncoming traffic did the same thing.
The result was horrific head-on collisions. Thirteen people died over 18 months before Manteca successful petitioned the state to place concrete barriers between the lanes.
The 120 Bypass was widened to freeway status in the mid-1990s about a decade ahead of schedule thanks to a loan of Measure K sales tax made to the project.