Dana Solomon avoids “it” like the plague.
And so do more than a few other Manteca residents.
“It” is the 120 Bypass from Main Street east to the Highway 99 transition ramps.
It isn’t uncommon for Manteca residents — if they find themselves on the Bypass and need to to head for Ripon or Modesto in commute traffic — to get off beforehand and take Woodward Avenue to Moffat or head into Ripon via West Ripon Road.
What drives them to detour is fear.
They fear the carnage.
And it’s not in their minds.
California Highway Patrol statistics should give insurance companies and anyone who cares about human life whiplash. In seven years there have been 1,261 accidents including 11 crashes that involved fatalities and 815 that had injuries along the six-mile 120 Bypass. The vast majority happened from a point midway from the Union Road and Main Street interchanges heading eastbound to the Highway 99 transition.
That is a significant accident every two days.
Remember, the 120 Bypass is straight, has generous setbacks to the fence lines, has ample shoulders, a broad median, and no distractions such as airplanes flying low overhead to land at an airport or skydivers drifting into an airport at the freeway’s edge. It should among the safest freeway sections by design in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Instead it is arguably the deadliest.
To people like Solomon — who made his living responding as an EMT to accidents and medical emergencies before retiring as the head of the Manteca District Ambulance — the reason is obvious: There needs to be another southbound lane to reach Highway 99 from the eastbound 120 Bypass.
But here’s the rub. That is not a design flaw. If people drove as they should, the carnage would be much less or non-existent. In fact they are similar areas in the Bay Area with traffic back-ups trying to get into transition ramps that are far from being as bloody.
So what makes the 120 Bypass so deadly? The answer lies in “operational” considerations.
Impatient drivers are part of it. Trying to go to the head of the line and cutting in sets off a braking chain reaction. Most people caught up in such insanity on a daily basis are guarded as they drive closer to the 99 transition ramps. Occasional drivers from up and down the valley and those from out-of-the area are not.
Still, you could say that about a lot of stretches of freeway in the congested Bay Area that have impatient drivers as well. And it is even more vexing considering changes made a few years back when the Ripon to Manteca widening took place and gave transition traffic its own lane instead of forcing it to merge.
There are two key differences.
Unlike elsewhere in the Bay Area traffic has normally been moving at a high rate of speed when all of a sudden it slows and often comes to a stop. Of course that happens in the Bay Area but then again most people not overtly familiar with the Bay Area expect that due to the non-stop congestion.
The other wild card is trucks. And it’s not that trucks are doing anything illegal or unsafe The fact they are trucks they can’t take the transition ramp at 45 mph. That helps slowdown traffic and contributes to the slinky effect as well. And when trucks slow down for backed up traffic or have to come to a stop because of it, they end up taking longer to get moving again given they are trucks.
That tempts way too many people to slingshot by them and cut back over.
It is doubtful anybody back in the 1970s designing an interchange such as the 120/99 configuration when a farm county like San Joaquin had only 290,000 residents could have envisioned the level of traffic during commute hours that there is today.
At the same time the 120 Bypass’ strategic importance for moving trucks off of California’s Main Street — as Highway 99 has been called due to the corridor’s strategic role of moving food from the agricultural region that’s the world’s most productive — to markets was probably seen differently. Toss in truck traffic moving other goods up and down a valley that now has 3.1 million consumers as well as moving goods between Los Angeles, Reno, and Sacramento into the economic Mecca that the Bay Area has become and you have all the ingredients needed for vehicle mayhem.
Caltrans couldn’t have seen this one coming. That said, they do have a solution. Fortunately there is money to get the design work moving forward that incudes either relocating or closing the Austin Road ramps. But what is lacking is the construction funding.
Regional leaders have made improving the 120 Bypass/99 a top priority. Now they just need to convince the state to do the same.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.