By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
120 Bypass: Tumbleweeds, tule fog, carnage, congestion & how a bunch of pennies are helping make things right
bypass wreck
The aftermath of one of the endless accidents on the 120 Bypass.

Live in Manteca long enough — just a day or so will do it — and you will have a 120 Bypass horror story.

Three of mine are:

*Memorial Day Weekend in 1998 when a signature 120 Bypass crash happened — a chain reaction in the infamous right lane nearing the exit to Highway 99 south.

An auto transport truck, braking in time to avoid becoming part of the twisted pileup as it unfolded,  had an improperly secured car roll off the upper level and drop on top of a car that had stopped behind it. The driver of that car was crushed to death.

 *The second time I’d ever been on the 120 Bypass. It was at night when it was socked in with dense tule fog.

I was moving to Manteca driving a U-Haul truck coming from Interstate 5. It was when two lanes went down to one and then back again.  The one-lane section on the bridge over McKinley Avenue was a concrete barrier separating the lanes along with a barrier on the bridge’s edge.

Both barriers were heavily lined with amber reflectors, creating a visual effect that was reminiscent of plunging down the Space Mountain roller-coaster at Disneyland as you drove.

Adding to the adventure was striking several tumbleweeds trapped by the barrier along the narrow travel lane.

*My first time on the 120 Bypass. It was a memorable experience because I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me.

In a way, that was good that some of the thickest nighttime tule fog I had ever driven in made me oblivious to the “suicide lanes” and other nuances at the time on the 120 Bypass.

Friends in Pleasant Hill, expecting me New Year’s Eve in 1989, suggested I take Highway 99 down to Manteca and cut across at the 120 Bypass.

It had been foggy for the entire week. I told them I was unfamiliar with the 120 Bypass cutoff although I’d driven numerous times on Highway 99.

They said no problem. Just keep an eye peeled for the Yosemite Avenue exit beforehand and keep my window rolled down. That way I could smell when I was nearing the 120 Bypass exit.

I thought they were nuts, until I drove it.

Motorists passing Highway 99 approaching the 120 Bypass as well as those on the actual Bypass near the interchange, had their sinuses cleared out by the elixir created from the mixture of sugar beet pulp pile odors from the Spreckels Sugar plant and the manure smells emanating from the former Moffat cattle feed lot next door.

Urbanization that started in 1999 on the south side of the Bypass on what was once a large swath of sandy loam ground has substantially reduced the thickness of the tule fog and almost eliminated tumble weeds that in “good years’ required Caltrans crews to cart away hundreds over the course of a year.

Back then it was the 120 Bypass 2.0 version as opposed to the current 3.0 version.

Stats compiled by Caltrans show that in recent years you are seven times more likely to get into an accident along the six-mile 120 Bypass 3.0 version than you are on an average California freeway.

As treacherous as that might sound, it is downright safe compared to the 120 Bypass in its infancy.

The first 18 months after it opened in the 1980s, the 120 Bypass 1.0 version was labeled as the worst “bloody alley’ in California,

Thirty people died in 18 months.

It was thanks — in a large degree — to the use of “suicide lanes” ironically called “passing lanes” as in “pass away.”

Keep in mind “blood alley” and “suicide lanes” aren’t terms of  endearment that traffic engineers came up with.

They entered the vernacular thanks to a motoring public paying the price for those among us that drive in anger, drive while distracted, and drive when impatient.

Suicide lanes were a fun feature of some California highways and quasi-freeways such as the 120 Bypass was at the time as it had interchanges but just a common asphalt  ribbon that traffic in both directions shared. That was before a parallel ribbon of pavement was added in the early 1990s.

The original 120 Bypass was neither fish nor fowl.

It was hatched as part freeway and part highway with space set aside to elevate it to true freeway status when funds were available.

The 120 Bypass 2.0 version with concrete K-rail separating the two-way traffic was created in a bid to slow down the carnage that was seeing a death every 2.5 weeks.

You could blame what unfolded in terms of safety on highway design, and a lot of people did and still do.

The sad fact is there is no such thing as an unsafe highway in California.

That’s because the basic California speed law is explicit  —  you may never drive faster than is safe for the current road conditions.

And conditions include everything from the road surface, and weather to congestion level.

That said, roads should be designed as safely as possible.

Its not just a matter of engineering.

Everything costs money.

And in the case of highway construction dollars there is a lot of needs chasing a limited supply of dollars.

Next spring, 52.5 million of those dollars — mostly gathered at the rate of 58 cents every time  a gallon of gas is pumped in California — will allow the first of three phases costing $131 million altogether to be built.

But what got San Joaquin County at he front of the line was the half cent extra paid on taxable transactions throughout the county.

The bulk of new construction for freeways and highways often requires local matches.

Measure K — a road and street tax twice authorized for 20-year stints by the voters — is responsible in part for every major road and transit improvement in the county happening sooner than later.

It was money advanced by Measure K receipts and later paid back by the state, that got the 120 Bypass upgraded to a real freeway 10 years ahead of the state’s tentative target.

It is also what got the ball rolling now on the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 three-phase upgrade that wasn’t even programmed to happen by the state until 2035 at the earliest.

And for those wondering why the entirety of the 120 Bypass isn’t simply made into six lanes, it doesn’t come up on California’s statewide to-do list until 2040-2045 at the earliest

Rest assured, if it happens earlier — or happens at all — its because voters in San Joaquín County know a good tax when they saw it.


This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at