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The case not to widen 120 Bypass to 6 lanes
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Drive west into Del Puerto Canyon from Patterson and you’ll climb into San Antonio Valley cradled between the ridgelines of the Coastal Range.
It is here amid oaks and brush that has just turned golden that a herd of tule oak roam on a 3,282-acre nature reserve. There are little signs of civilization save an occasional ranch house, a barn or two and three paved main roads between Mt. Hamilton to the south and Lake Del Valle near Livermore to the north.
Less than 20 years ago the Gods of California Freeways got then Congressman Richard Pombo’s ear. They wanted to punch a 45-mile freeway between Patterson and San Jose to ease the Northern San Joaquin Valley-Bay Area commute. Proponents argued it wouldn’t be a growth inducing freeway as they would only be one interchange — aside from already established urban areas — at Milnes Road/San Antonio Valley Road.
The proposal garnered lukewarm support in Ripon, Manteca, and Modesto.
It stayed alive as a possibility for perhaps six years before the idea was allowed to die.
While ramming another freeway across the Coastal Range between the Bay Area jobs and affordable housing was dismissed as a bad idea for the environment and for being growth inducing, one sentiment expressed during the fairly low-key debate lives on. That sentiment, simply put, is the myth of the 98-lane freeway.
The myth starts with converting a two-lane highway to a freeway to ease traffic congestion. Then, as it becomes easier for people to move farther away from urban centers the freeway becomes congested just like the highway. Soon the push is on to widen the freeway to six lanes. That prompts more long range commuting which in turn puts pressure to convert a two lane highway that feeds into the now six lane freeway to be widened to a four-lane freeway.
Freeway widening — as was the Del Puerto Canyon freeway proposal and the Interstate 205 widening to six lanes last decade — is almost always presented as a way to improve the quality of life of commuters by reducing time spent stuck in freeway traffic.
This brings us to the 120 Bypass and “the push” to widen it to six lanes by 2040.
It’s “the push” as it is on a regional transportation needs list pursued by the San Joaquin County Council of Governments and Caltrans.
There is little doubt the proposed replacement of the Austin Road overcrossing with a wider bridge to allow upgrades to the Highway 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange is justified from a safety and capacity standpoint.
But to adhere to a game plan that calls for a six-lane 120 Bypass or even extending the bypass eastward is destructive, expensive and ultimately counterproductive.
It is clear widening much of the Highway 99 corridor from North Stockton to the Stanislaus River beyond six lanes would be costly and require major acquisition and removal of homes and businesses. It is also a given the biggest traffic demand on the 120 Bypass is commuting to Bay Area jobs. Extending freeways such as the 120 Bypass eastward only encourages sprawl which in turn creates more pressure to add more freeway lanes. Not only is it a vicious cycle but its unsustainable financially. California currently has a $60 billion funding shortfall over the next 10 years for freeway maintenance and construction needs. That doesn’t even touch on the hundreds of bridges that need upgrading.
Also widening feeder freeways in the Northern San Joaquin Valley to funnel more traffic into some of the nation’s most congested freeways that are found in the Bay Area is the very definition of insanity.
Widening feeder freeways when it is impossible to increase the capacity of Bay Area freeways is a zero gain. You may end up cutting commute time in the hinterlands but it will slow down more in the Bay Area.
What makes more sense is pumping up rail service.
The plan to provide Altamont Corridor Express with its own tracks over the Altamont Pass without the slow, lazy curves by building tunnels and bridges will hack 45 minutes off the train commute to San Jose making it almost an hour faster than by car.
Providing an ACE/BART station connection via rail on both systems in Livermore instead of the current 10-minute ground shuttle in Pleasanton would be a major game changer.
The greater Bay Area-Northern San Joaquin Valley region needs to grow up and not out. And it needs to do so without making the commute worse and destroying why people chose to live here.
The answer is not a six-lane 120 Bypass. It is upgraded ACE service with a direct BART connection.

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.