Drive eastbound on the 120 Bypass long enough and you know the drill: Grip the steering wheel, get ready to hit the brakes, and fear for your life.
The sinking feeling that an accident can happen at any second starts as early as the Union Road interchange as traffic in the outside lane starts slowing down. And even if you see traffic starting to slow down and act accordingly, you’re never too sure that the guy barreling down on you at 65 mph will react in time. Maybe they are yakking away on a cell phone. Perhaps they simply drive too close. Or, worse yet, they are unfamiliar with the daily equivalent of a stop-and-go Samba line dance done with 2,000-pound cars and semi-trucks that can easily weigh 12 tons empty.
It is all the result of Manteca’s very own Deadman’s Curve, the transition ramp from eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99.
Few accidents happen on the actual ramp. Instead they are classic rear-end affairs such as the fatal that happened Tuesday afternoon occurring when traffic starts slowing down substantially well in advance of the infamous split.
Some of it has to do with self-absorbed Cro-Magnon drivers who — instead of falling in line early — will travel in the left lane until they cut into the queue at the last possible second triggering a chain reaction of brake lights. Some of it has to do with sheer traffic volume. The vast majority of eastbound 120 traffic is heading south and it is not just during the commute. Slowdowns on Saturday and Sunday are common throughout the day and night.
And as unnerving as the drive is right now it is about to get worse.
Caltrans by 2014 will have finished widening Highway 99 to allow three lanes of travel in each direction from Lodi to Turlock.
In doing so, the 1999 improvement that helped ease the 120 Bypass back-up somewhat will be negated. That improvement was the widening of 99 to three lanes south, starting at the 120 Bypass. It gave the transition lane from eastbound 120 to southbound 99 its own freeway lane instead of having to merge.
All good things must come to an end. When Highway 99 is three lanes in each direction, the transition lane goes back to a merger lane.
However, it’ll get worse than that.
The merger lane is limited by separation from the existing Austin Road interchange.
The Austin Road interchange is being upgraded to accommodate more truck traffic for its namesake 1,050-acre business park that is inching toward ground breaking.
It will create a very short area that will complement the Samba line dance with the Dosey Doe weave. Not only will it exacerbate the stop-and-go travel in the outside lane in the eastbound 120 Bypass but it will create a new travel hazard.
The situation is further complicated by Caltrans’ inability to squeeze another lane of travel for a distance past the Austin Road interchange. That will change, of course, when a new interchange is built somewhere between Austin Road and Jack Tone Road. But that is many years of accidents and congested, air quality-reducing traffic ahead.
Short of banishing every inattentive driver and inconsiderate motorist, the only plausible solution is having two lanes transition from eastbound Highway 120 to southbound Highway 99, as well as having a long merger lane along 99.
This requires two things: Money and political will.
You don’t get the money and a road project during the current century unless you pursue a political solution.
Manteca’s leadership should know this. That is how the 120 Bypass got built ahead of schedule. That’s how the suicide alley that Caltrans then created got barriers to reduce carnage that at one point killed two dozen people in 18 months. And it is also what got the 120 Bypass made into a full blown freeway.
The bypass was attained by enlisting the support of Bay Area weekend travelers who got backed up in Manteca to help pressure their representatives in Sacramento to do something about the situation. It involved a Bay Area media blitz to handing out fliers to drivers stopped at traffic lights on Yosemite Avenue.
While a safer and smoother flowing 120 Bypass benefits everyone, those who commute from Ripon, Modesto and areas south daily as well as the trucking industry would see their chances for accidents and delays cut even further.
The bottom line is nothing gets done if someone doesn’t make easing the traffic and safety issues involving Manteca’s Deadman Curve a priority.
Predecessors of those currently sitting on the Manteca City Council understood they had to take a leadership role on safety and congestion in the120 Bypass.
More of the same is needed today to reduce future body counts and avoid back-ups becoming the norm as far west as Airport Way.
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.