July 27, 2014

Sue Nowicki: Highways under construction across the country, in Stanislaus area

An 8,000-mile journey shows highway projects are under way from coast to coast. Locally, readers want to know about blocked lanes and oleander bushes.

As I’ve recently returned from traveling nearly 8,000 miles on this country’s roads, most of them highways, the two questions for today about conditions along Highway 99 are very appropriate.

First, though, a few observations from my trip.

We hit 20 states, and I think there were highway construction projects in all of them. Part of it was the time of year, of course. The Midwest and East Coast had been hit with a heavy, wet and late winter; the last snow in Wisconsin flurried in April, for example. So June and July were ideal for scheduled repairs. But beyond that, major projects also were underway.

From our view, North Carolina and Virginia have the prettiest highways, lined for miles with evergreens. Nebraska has the best roads; wide cement swathes with plenty of room on either side of the freeway. No asphalt or potholes there. Illinois by far has the worst, despite the tollways collecting ever-increasing amounts.

I’m glad we live in a state where the tolls are mostly limited to a few bridges. Tollways seem to give rise to awful jobs for folks stuck in booths filled with exhaust fumes and humid or freezing weather, raising funds that could easily be shaved off by unprincipled politicians or others. And it is a hassle to stop at those tollbooths every few miles, and when exiting the freeways; even drivers with passes similar to our FasTrak have to stop at certain locations.

The California Department of Transportation would likely enjoy having more funding, but I’d rather pay taxes than tolls.

Questions about the aesthetics of the highway, in the landscaping, medians and bridges, have been addressed before in this column. We noticed some lovely overpasses and other eye-appealing design features along the interstates, particularly the overpasses in Arizona and New Mexico, and the greenbelt vegetation in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Highway billboards seemed to be outlawed in some states.

My final observation is that in some states, the signs would say that a right lane was ending, for example, and so you should move to the left. Drivers immediately would move to the single remaining lane and stop there forever, it seems, only to find out that the lane actually didn’t end for another two miles, and that perhaps the barriers would be up for another two miles beyond that before the actual work began. In California, most of the time when signs say a lane is ending, it is ending soon, and only the area near the work is blocked off.

That leads me to the first question: Why is it that the left or “fast” lane in the northbound Highway 99 section just south of Merced is blocked off with barrels and signs stating the lane is closed when, in fact, all of the work apparently has been finished? And then why is that third lane open for just a short stretch before it’s closed again as the highway narrows to two northbound lanes?

Angela DaPrato of Caltrans explained it this way last week:

“The No. 1 (left) lane on northbound SR-99 is closed for median work. The area is an active construction zone. Crews are constructing the southbound lanes and shoulder; the No. 1 lane is closed for the safety of workers. This section of the work is scheduled to wrap up this week and Caltrans is hoping to have the lane on northbound SR-99 at Buchanan Hollow Road open tomorrow.”

Driving through on a weekday, I didn’t see any crews or equipment in the median area, but the important thing is that the lane should now be open.

The work is part of a $128 million project that began in 2012 and will eventually expand the freeway to six lanes south of Merced between Buchanan Hollow Road and the Miles Creek Overflow, DaPrato added.

Judy Chambers of Turlock wants to know about the oleanders that were planted in the middle of the highway several decades ago.

“I am so glad that oleanders have been left in the middle of the freeway,” Judy said. “I think they add a lot of beauty to the area. My question is how are they watered and otherwise cared for? The bunkers will keep them safe, but watered?”

According to Rick Estrada, another Caltrans spokesman, “The oleanders planted in the median of State Route 99 in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are not irrigated. Once established, these plants are drought-resistant and can survive the San Joaquin Valley’s hot summers.”

He said Caltrans doesn’t keep track of the number of oleanders, but added, “we can tell you that at least half of the oleanders in District 10 were removed this past decade during projects to improve median safety. These safety projects installed metal beam guardrails and concrete barriers.”

I’m all for safety, but I’d rather have the oleanders there, too. I remember reading a story years ago that said the bushes were planted so that drivers heading one way wouldn’t face the glare of headlights from cars going in the opposite direction. It also helped with pollution, added color to the freeways and helped prevent cars from plowing into oncoming traffic. Sounded like a win-win-win to me.

Of course, that’s when the speed limits probably were lower, there were fewer cars so freeways didn’t need those extra lanes and there were no massive SUVs barreling down the road that could take out a bush in a heartbeat. I’m thankful for the oleanders that remain, but I do wish cities, civic organizations and Caltrans would cooperate to improve the landscaping along the sides of Highway 99 and in the medians; we could all use a little more beauty on the road.

Thanks for joining me on this week’s ride!

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