State Issues

After seeing its work on 132, there’s no reason to trust Caltrans

A highway construction sign along Highway 99 near Hammett Road announces work to be done by Caltrans and local partners.
A highway construction sign along Highway 99 near Hammett Road announces work to be done by Caltrans and local partners. The Modesto Bee

The mission of Caltrans is to minimize traffic congestion while maximizing road safety. In Stanislaus County, Caltrans is doing just the opposite.

The agency is making congestion worse on State Route 132 west of Modesto while failing to make the road any safer.

The question is why?

An engineer working for Caltrans, who must remain anonymous, explained how the scheme works. To get funding to widen roads, Caltrans deliberately creates congestion. As more citizens complain, the agency is allocated more money for its projects.

Caltrans has done such a good job enabling congestion, and allowing road conditions to deteriorate, that the state legislature authorized a 12-cent per gallon gas tax that started Nov. 1. Caltrans will get a large portion of that without any increased oversight.

Through “increased safety standards,” Caltrans has spent large sums on extravagant projects. Take the Kiernan Expressway, which took enough farmland to build an eight-lane freeway. Caltrans didn’t even synchronize the signals, forcing motorists to stop at nearly every light.

The agency’s administrative costs equal about 25 percent of the road improvement budget, up from 10 percent in the 1960s.

State Route 132 is mostly two-lane road from downtown Modesto to Interstate 5. Except during rush hours, Route 132 doesn’t carry enough traffic to justify a freeway. To increase the perception a freeway is needed, Caltrans has deliberately increased congestion by making dubious changes along the road.

A new signal impedes traffic where Kasson crosses 132 and becomes River Road, just west of the San Joaquin River. Prior to installing the signal, traffic on side roads – usually no more than one or two vehicles at a time – had to wait for a break in traffic. Now, traffic on much busier 132 must wait nearly 2 minutes for the signal to change. Impatient drivers often run the red light when they can.

Because of the new signal, a few cars on Kasson can cause up to 100 cars on Route 132 to stop or slow. Road widening was done at the same time the traffic signal was installed. At nearly the same cost as the improvements, Caltrans could have built an overpass with on and off ramps for Kasson and River. An interchange would have been more efficient and safer.

West of I-5, Caltrans is rebuilding the existing four-lane freeway, which does nothing to alleviate congestion; the project costs multiples of an overpass. With limited funds, why hasn’t congestion reduction taken precedence?

At the intersection of highways 33 and 132, north of Vernalis, safety would be improved if an on-ramp were built for traffic entering Highway 132 from 33. Then cars and semi-trucks wouldn’t need to cross westbound 132, which is constantly busy.

The current facility is unsafe during rush hour, but Caltrans is oblivious. The intersection is now being completely rebuilt without improving the traffic pattern.

The traffic signal at Route 132 and Hart Road has design flaws that impede traffic. During light traffic on 132, the signal changes rapidly in favor of Hart Road – causing cars and trucks to stop. You can see the skid marks on the roadway just before the signal. During rush hour, vehicles wait through multiple cycles of signal change.

Caltrans could have built an interchange at the intersection. Now, businesses have located nearby making any changes much more expensive. When the signal was installed, Caltrans didn’t widen the roadway. Even a traffic circle would be preferable to the current facility.

Caltrans says signals were installed “for safety.” If safety was the real priority, center barriers to prevent head-on crashes would have been installed at a cost of only $15 million (compared to the $400 million to build a freeway) 30 years ago. Overpasses are safer than traffic signals.

Caltrans still has not removed the toxic waste dump – next to a residential neighborhood – in the 132 right of way at Emerald Avenue in Modesto.

Blue reflectors that deter animal crossings at night similar to ones in Germany should be installed; the reflectors are reportedly 100 percent effective in eliminating road kill. .

The 132 freeway project will take 20 years to complete. To maximize construction and administrative costs, the 19-mile project will be built in four phases. But when 200 miles of I-5 was built through the Valley, it was completed in one phase.

Caltrans has spent billions since its inception. With so little legislative oversight, Caltrans has no incentive to operate economically. Why do we tolerate such mediocrity?

Bruce Frohman is a former Modesto City Councilman. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.