As I-5 closures loom, jittery travelers plot alternate routes to Sacramento airport

05/29/2008 10:35 AM

10/20/2014 11:17 AM

Sacramentan Ulla McDaniel has a case of the travel jitters. So do Loren Sanders of south Sacramento and Kathie Darnell in Placerville.

McDaniel needs to get to Sacramento International Airport on time Monday morning to fly to Copenhagen, Denmark. Sanders is headed to Indiana on Tuesday to visit his sister, and Darnell has a Wednesday flight to Los Angeles.

Starting Friday night, however, their main route to the airport will be blocked. Caltrans will close a short section of northbound Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento for repairs. Intermittent closures on the freeway will last through July.

For thousands of travelers, Sacramento's busy airport may suddenly be the hardest place in the region to get to, and at the worst time – at the start of the summer travel season.

Concern stretches down the valley.

At Adventure Travel in Turlock, agents are developing a recommended route for clients and plan to give them maps.

Travel agent Maria Estacio said they are also alerting clients who are in the process of booking travel but many are still choosing the airport, which often offers lower ticket prices.

“We’re just trying to find the best, quickest, easiest way to go without too many turns,” she said.

Even with the closure, the airport tends to be a better bet than some of the larger choices, she said. “Sacramento is a really nice airport and easy to get to. It’s easy to get around and not as big as say, San Francisco.”

The first few mornings next week, when McDaniel, Sanders and Darnell fly, will be the trickiest for airport-bound drivers.

All three are plotting detour routes. But no one, not airport or highway officials, can tell them exactly what the city's roads and highways will be like during the first commute mornings next week.

McDaniel, who has family and friends in Copenhagen, tested a route up Howe Avenue, out Arden Way, along the Garden Highway and onto Interstate 5 north of the closure area.

She has fingers crossed that traffic won't be bad Monday on her route.

"I have to make that flight!" she said. "If I had known they would start (freeway construction) that day, I wouldn't pick my flight that day."

The 76-year-old Sanders said he'll leave his home near Florin Road at 4 a.m. Tuesday for an 8:15 a.m. flight – just to be sure. He'll have his bags packed and sitting at the front door.

He decided to follow the main detour suggested by Caltrans and airport officials:

He'll go west on Highway 50 through Sacramento and into West Sacramento, where he will merge onto Interstate 80 (Reno direction), and then connect with I-5 (Redding direction) in Natomas.

"I guess I'd rather be there way ahead of time than miss my plane," he said.

Darnell, an American Airlines flight attendant, has to drive to the airport 10 times this month to catch a Southwest commuter flight to Los Angeles, where she's stationed.

She and her husband tested Caltrans' recommended detour Wednesday morning – the one Sanders plans to take – and reported happily from the airport.

"It was a breeze, a piece of cake!" she said. "Spread the word."

Caltrans officials warn, however, that the detour route could be crowded next week. The closures are expected to send congestion rippling through most of Sacramento's urban freeways, especially on Highway 50 approaching the I-5 interchange.

Caltrans officials have been telling airport travelers to add an hour to their usual airport travel time next week – even more if they're going during commute hours.

Airport officials say it's unlikely that airlines will hold any flights for stragglers.

"They should plan for their flights to depart at the time they are scheduled," the airport's Karen Doron said.

Airport officials are distributing brochures with a map of alternative routes and information about the closures. Caltrans also will post roadway message boards at the airport to give travelers some guidance.

But plenty of travelers say they are confused about what routes will work for them, and how long the drive will take.

Their confusion is compounded by the complicated closure plan.

Some weeks, I-5 northbound lanes will be closed, making it hard for many who live south of the American River to get to the airport.

Other weeks, it'll be the southbound lanes, which will make it hard for people arriving at the airport to get into downtown or to south and east Sacramento neighborhoods.

The closures will happen only on a short section of freeway in the heart of downtown, near Old Sacramento.

But the construction project has worried airport travelers even north of the river who, like Lisa Mangen of Roseville, won't be directly affected by the closures.

Mangen has to fly to Los Angeles next week, then back up to San Francisco for her daughter's university graduation ceremony.

She breathed a slight sigh of relief when told the freeway closures may slow her down, but that she won't have to search for a different route.

"I cannot miss that flight!" she said.

Caltrans officials said they know the closures will inconvenience commuters and airport travelers, but said they intend to work as fast as possible.

Sanders of south Sacramento said he is willing to tolerate construction closures, even though he realized this week that it's turned his trip into a travel oddity: He's allotted himself four hours for the few miles between home and takeoff, the same amount of time as his entire flight to Indiana.

"Now, that's something!" he said.

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