Traffic relief on I-205 remains two years away

TRACY -- Traffic-weary commuters on Interstate 205 have a front-row seat to the widening of the chronically congested route to the Bay Area. And while the long-awaited project is going smoothly, it will be two more years before it's finished.

A third lane is being added in each direction between Interstate 5 and just west of Tracy. The $92 million project could be done by October 2009, said Alfred Blum, resident engineer for Caltrans.

"We're making good progress. This has been a good summer," he said.

Crews have finished the sound wall through Tracy. Then they began widening raised sections of the interstate and bolstering concrete panels and slabs under the road. Crews also have excavated where the new westbound lane will be. Spots of charcoal-colored paving give a hint of what is to come. In the fall, the entire 10 miles along the westbound side should be paved, Blum said.

Tracy resident Joyce Arbuckle has watched the work with anticipation.

"It should have been done already with the way Tracy and Modesto and Manteca have grown," said Arbuckle, who witnessed the steady surge in commuters during the past 20 years. "It can take double the time now during the commute. It's good to see the progress, and the way they keep building, we just need it."

The road is gridlocked with westbound commuters in the morning. Eastbound traffic backs up by midafternoon and often doesn't ease up until well into evening.

But those are about the only certainties. Because of accidents, vacation traffic and sometimes for no particular reason at all, traffic grinds to a crawl, noted former commuter Kelly Johnson of Tracy.

"You never know," Johnson said Monday while loading groceries into her car near the freeway. "You can be heading somewhere on the weekend at a time you wouldn't expect anyone to be on the road, and you're in stop-and-go traffic."

Indeed, at 11:15 a.m. Monday, a holiday, the westbound traffic had slowed to a crawl.

That should ease with the new lane, and reduce the number of accidents by reducing the number of unsafe lane changes, said Kevin Sheridan, the project's coordinator at the San Joaquin Council of Governments.

To improve safety during construction, Caltrans reduced the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph. Workers steer equipment on and off the median and in other places where drivers might not instinctively look, making it important to drive more slowly, Blum said. The slower speed reduces the severity of accidents that do occur, he noted.

Between 15 and 20 Caltrans employees are working full time on the project, and private employees number four to five times that many, Blum said. Daytime work hours usually are 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and night operations are Sunday through Thursday.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.