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Driven Mad


Posted on May 29


As our daily commutes throughout the Sacramento region get longer and more frustrating, how are they determining our destiny? Is there any hope in sight?

It’s 5:02 p.m. on a Thursday.

Maybe you’re sitting on the Sunrise Boulevard freeway offramp, knowing full well it’s going to take you an hour—at least—to get across the bridge, let alone to your destination, because traffic is bumper-to-bumper.

Or you might be one of the drivers who has just passed that offramp, suddenly remembering that you’ll have to merge left to avoid the traffic stopped by the spillout onto Highway 50 at the Hazel Avenue exit a few miles ahead. (Of course, getting over is a breeze. Not.)

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones heading home to Elk Grove on Highway 99. The traffic is stop-and-go in every lane but the car-pool lane, which is empty.

You might be idling away on the infamous “Marconi Curve, attempting an exit from the Capital City Freeway, or maybe you’re stuck behind one of the smelly, noisy, diesel-spilling, gravel-spitting 18-wheelers that regularly travesl Interstate 5—all in an attempt to avoid Highway 99, which you hear is really bad . . . .

You don’t have to be a traffic engineer to know there’s a traffic problem in—and all around—Sacramento.

Becky Heieck moved up to El Dorado Hills five years ago to get away from what she and her husband saw then as the “hustle and bustle of Sacramento. She commutes on Highway 50 daily to her job off Howe Avenue. Leaving at around 7:30 a.m., she says she gets in to the office “around 9, depending.'

“It’s bad every day, but some days it’s awful. I try to listen to the traffic reports and use the 50 Corridor website to be prepared. But you just never know.'

Her husband, Charlie Heieck, manages Heieck Supply, which runs wholesale distribution to stores in Sacramento, Rocklin and especially Concord—to which he commutes three, sometimes all five, days of the week.

You’d think he’d have it worse than she does.

“He says to me, ‘Wait a minute—it takes me an hour and a half to get to Concord, and it takes you that long to get to Howe Avenue? Something’s wrong with that.’

Becky Heieck, who helps commuters solve their transportation issues as a representative for the Power Inn Business Transportation Association, can’t wait until the Folsom light rail line opens up. She calls it “our only hope.

“My husband and I may be able to drive down together,' she says. “He could take the train to the Bay Area, and I could take light rail in. We could spend that time together reading or talking or getting work done if we have to. There’d be no more hassling with parking; our costs would be cut significantly.

She says she never would have lasted at her job had she tried to commute while her kids, who are now away at college, were still at home. “It’s too much time away from home. You’re gone before they are in the morning, and you don’t get home for hours after they’ve been home. My husband was still doing his commute the whole time, and he missed out on a lot of school stuff.

Heieck is one of an increasing number of Sacramentans who believes our daily commutes are having a huge impact on our daily lives—to the point that they are determining our destiny.

“Where people live, what kinds of jobs they are able to consider, where we send our children to school—it’s all determined by how much driving we’re willing to do,' says Heieck. “We might not have ever moved out of the city if we knew then what we know now about what our commute would be like. I think more and more people are moving closer in, having to turn down jobs because the commute is impossible, or somehow pulling off a stressful commute because they can’t afford to live closer to where they work, like my husband does.'

Funny, she never thought much about the importance of mass transportation and commuting options. “I used to think it’s no big deal to commute. I now think it’s a huge deal, and it’s taking up more and more of my time. I’m especially worried about my husband, how the stress of his commute is affecting his health—that he won’t live to be an old man. I’m also more concerned about the environment than I used to be, and I’m worried about him sitting in pollution for hours at a time, twice a day every day.'

Commuters like the Heiecks have good reason to be concerned: In the 2004 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association reminded all of California that 95 percent of us still live in areas that fail to meet health-based standards for a variety of air pollutants. A UC Irvine study recently linked extended daily commuting (anything longer than 18 minutes; the average American commute, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, is 22 minutes) with heart disease risk and even premature death. The American Heart Association recommends those with heart problems and high blood pressure avoid rush-hour commutes altogether.

And if poor air quality and stressful travel don’t kill you, the view just may: A Texas A&M University study linked commutes “blighted by billboards, sprawl and strip development' or “visual pollution' with increased blood pressure, heart rate and respiration, eye movement and facial activity similar to what we experience when we are stressed. Commutes through “rural, unspoiled areas' did not have this physiological effect on drivers.

My wife and I are environmentalists,' says Bobby Favilia, a 55-year-old Arden Park resident who drives daily to his job at California State University, Sacramento. His wife works there, too, but often they are forced to take two cars, despite the fact that they’re trying to become a one-car family.

“Our schedules are so different, one of us would be waiting for hours for the other to get off work if we rode together,â€Â' Favilia explains, adding that he would love to take the bus. “But I can’t get one near my house that will leave early enough to get me to work. Favilia says when he phoned Regional Transit, he was told he would have to walk to a bus that leaves from Arden Way and Eastern Avenue, ride to 65th Street, then transfer to another bus to get to campus. “I’m older, and walking long distances really isn’t an option, which rules out the light rail,' he explains.

“My wife and I were born and raised here. We’re worried about what we see happening to the air and the quality of life here because of all the pollution and noise. And it’s not just rush hours on weekdays. I remember the days when it used to take an hour and a half to drive to San Francisco; now, it’s a two-, three-hour drive, depending. My job is right down the street, but that street is Fair Oaks Boulevard, and it can take an hour to get there from my house on a bad day.

Oh, come on! Surely Favilia’s exaggerating?

“Anyone who’s sat at that Fair Oaks/Watt light through four changes knows that’s no exaggeration,' he says.

Favilia doesn’t think making roads wider is the solution, and specifically cites the new Watt Avenue bridge: “They say it’s made things better; I think it’s worse than ever.' Favilia admits to snaking through residential streets, such as La Sierra, Castec, Northrup and Wilhaggin, to avoid Watt and Fair Oaks. “But the neighborhood residents don’t like it, he says. “Suddenly, one day you can’t turn right or left on a particular street, or it’s closed off altogether. I wouldn’t like it if people started driving down my street (Coronado Boulevard), but what if every neighborhood closed their streets to the public? You just can’t do that to a tax-paying public.'

Linda Tucker is a communications specialist for the city of Sacramento’s Department of Transportation. She lives in Elk Grove and is alarmed by the growth of her own community. “I see all these new homes going up; I look at them and fear that all those people in those homes are going to take my spot on the freeway. Then, Interstate 5, always the preferable route to 99, will be worse than 99.'

Tucker commutes daily to her job at Sixth and I streets and has tried riding her bike to work. “It took an hour, it was dangerous, and the rain makes it impossible on some days. And while I’d like to try it, I don’t always have the flexibility to car pool.

Her current commute is about 40 minutes, “depending, she says. “And, as more people from Elk Grove use I-5, it seems to get worse and worse. Any glitch—bad weather, an accident—can make me very late to work; oftentimes I can’t even guesstimate as to how late I’ll be.'

Freddy Orozco, transportation coordinator for CSUS, was carpooling from downtown but recently his buddy dropped out. “I am searching for a possible match, says Orozco, “because as the Employee Traffic Coordinator, if I’m going to talk the talk, I’d better walk the walk.

Orozco used to bike to work, but then he got promoted. “I need to come to work dressed up, and there’s no place convenient to shower.

He assures us that a match is “a phone conversation away—he thinks he has found someone who is in for the long haul this time around. The problem with his last ride buddy was that “she just got tired of carpooling, I think—she wants to commute by herself for a while.'

Orozco admits this can be the reason many Sacramentans commute by themselves. “They have busy, inflexible schedules. Sometimes the only time we have to think is alone in the car driving to work.'

Marilyn Bryant, the executive director for the Sacramento Transportation Management Association, avoids the Sacramento freeway system altogether, traveling through Sacramento whenever she can, no matter how much extra time it takes her: “They [the freeways] scare me to death!

Bryant used to work in South Natomas, and declares she was saved from a difficult commute when her office moved downtown. She happily boasts about the fact that she no longer commutes: “I live in East Sacramento and I work downtown; I try to keep everything I need within a three-mile radius of where I live—I can walk or take public transit. I consider myself lucky that I am able to afford to live in an area of the city that enables me to do so.'

Bryant blames the “scary' freeways, at least in part, on what she calls “SUV mentality.

“You put people in these heavy metal vehicles and they think it’s easier to push it in anywhere [they] want to go, like you would a tank.' Her main rant, though, is directed at people who drive alone. “The highway is crammed with cars. We need to fill those seats up. Instead of increasing the supply [by widening the roads], we need to manage the demand better,says Bryant.

Traffic is a problem in the Sacramento region, says Rebecca Garrison, founder of the organization 50 Corridor, which is devoted to parlaying information to and about Highway 50 commuters. “Commuters know it and there’s plenty of data to back them up,' says Garrison. “The latest study I recall documented that Sacramento peak-hour travelers were now wasting almost 40 hours a year stuck in traffic; 20 years ago it was around 10 hours.

Garrison calls it a supply-and-demand problem. But it’s not, repeat not, just about a shortage of highway capacity, “although that’s certainly one glaring example of where we just haven’t kept up with demand,' she says. “We can’t catch up with our demand for transit service, either, despite adding miles and miles of rail tracks in the region.

And, Garrison adds, “while we have wonderful bike facilities like the American River Parkway, we are in great need of a lot more and safer bike routes and connections around the region. A lot of commuters would take a bus, a train or a bike if any were truly viable options for them.'

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, 81 percent of America’s commuters drive their personal vehicle; and 86 percent drive alone. An ABC nationwide poll (“Gridlock Nation: America’s Traffic Toll'), with results that aired on a Valentine’s Day news story, revealed that 80 percent of U.S. commuters have no intention of sharing their drive with anyone, despite the fact that 62 percent reported that driving made them feel “frustrated,' 56 percent “nervous, and 43 percent “angry.'

And we drivers in the West (which “on a population basis basically means California, the report stated specifically) rated traffic conditions of our daily commutes the worst (57 percent called their commutes “bad as compared to only 36 percent in the Midwest and 46 percent in the Northeast).

It would seem our daily commutes are quickly souring our national love affair with driving—even here, a place where, as any East Coaster- will tell you, “You gotta have a car.'

“Yes, Californians still love their cars,' Garrison admits. “But I don’t run into a lot of people who love congestion. Trying to get downtown on a Tuesday morning bears no resemblance to a nice Sunday afternoon drive in the country.'

Road Work Ahead

Every expert interviewed agrees: Sacramento-area commuters need more choices, more “mobility options,' as Garrison puts it.

Car-pool lanes, to be added on four new corridors around the city by the year 2010, aren’t the most welcome solution: Commuters often are stuck in traffic, with a fast lane to the left mockingly empty. Experts stubbornly insist they will improve congestion in time. Here’s how: According to a University of California study of 30 urban counties within the state, every increase in lane miles generates nearly an equal increase in traffic within five years—five more miles of lane mean five more miles of traffic. But if these lanes all are high-occupancy vehicle lanes, as they must be by federal law in California, they only will be carrying cars with more people—drivers who otherwise would be on the road in their own cars. Five more miles of traffic with more than one person in the car equals fewer drivers on the road, experts reason—lessening traffic as opposed to increasing it. In fact, HOV lanes first introduced in the Bay Area, empty at first, have filled to the point that minimum occupancy was increased from two or more to three or more drivers. Eventually, when car-pool lanes connect, experts say efficiency will double because traffic won’t be merging in and out between HOV lane stretches.

Sacramento city officials already are talking about when—not if—HOV lanes in place on Highways 50 and 99 will need to go from a minimum of two to three occupants to continue to be effective, and how the car-pool lanes need to connect as soon as possible. To hear these and other plans, Sacramento’s commuting future sounds rosy indeed. A light rail line from Natomas to the airport. . . . A highway connecting interstates 50 and 80, so one need not circle Sacramento to go east to west. . . . Clean, fuel-efficient luxury buses that make fewer stops and are able to turn stoplights green. . . .

But none of this is getting anyone anywhere anytime faster anytime soon.

Most local officials understand citizen frustration. Really, they do.

“My job is difficult because I see the work for the future being done. I see the plans, and I know where we will be, but it will take some time,' says Angie Louie Fong, city traffic engineer for the city of Sacramento’s Department of Transportation. “The public doesn’t see the planning, the investigations, the problem-solving. They only see their drive to and from work every day getting worse, and they think nothing’s being done.

Anticipating demands that would accommodate its growth, Roseville has been adding options for commuters since 1987: It was one of the first outlying areas to add commuter service with 45-passenger shuttle buses that, for less than $3 (double for nonresidents), pick up residents at park-and-ride lots and drop them off in downtown Sacramento. Roseville Transit runs seven popular commuter routes.

“We have excellent ridership and we have room for more, and we will be adding commuter service to other areas within the next five years, says Loraine Browning, administrative analyst for the city.

Bus routes also will soon transport commuters from Roseville to the 50 corridor, says Michael Wixon, Transportation and Bikeways Division manager for the city of Roseville. “Bus ridership jumped 14 percent in 2000, and has enjoyed a consistent 7 percent increase ever since,' Wixon says. As a result, the city can continue to add bus service with the assurance that ridership will increase as well. And Roseville may become the first public transit agency in the Greater Sacramento area to introduce “hybrid' buses: Powered by electricity and gasoline, the hybrid buses deliver 60 percent better fuel economy (and less pollution) than diesel engine buses for between $40,000 and $150,000 more per vehicle, depending on the model.

Solutions also are in the works for the 50 corridor as a result of teamwork. The city of Rancho Cordova is teaming with Sacramento County officials to plan solutions that will relieve traffic south of Highway 50. And Folsom and El Dorado County officials are brainstorming ways to link El Dorado Hills to Folsom. Recently, when a section of car-pool lanes was built in Sacramento County to ease congestion on 50, El Dorado County in fact paid the bill, says Garrison.

Garrison calls the 50 corridor a work in progress. “Most of our commute problems stem from the fact that we just aren’t done yet with all our plans,' she says. “If we fast-forward 10 or 20 years, you’ll see a complete network of HOV lanes, bicycle trails connecting El Dorado County into Sacramento County, a transit system that links El Dorado to downtown Sacramento, alternative routes to Highway 50 such as the El Dorado to Elk Grove Connector Parkway and a new north-south multi-modal transportation corridor running along the Folsom South Canal.'

Often, cost rules out the more imaginative and effective solutions that have worked so well in European cities, admits Nancy Kays, executive director of Sacramento Area Council of Governments. “We thought about putting one direction of Sunrise Boulevard underground at one point, but the cost was so astronomical that that plan was abandoned immediately.' Kays admits the “trucks only' lane option that has proved effective across the pond might work on those interstates heavily traveled by trucks (5, 99 and 80, for example), but that the idea hasn’t been explored.

One needs to see it to believe it: Angie Fong is seated in the room next to the “mission control of traffic management in the city of Sacramento. On screen are about 300 of Sacramento’s busiest intersections and active construction sites, which are monitored at peak hours, daily.

“Some get freaked out by the Big Brother nature of the cams, but it gives us a visual to see what’s going on, says Fong.

For example, she points out a construction site just a block away, on I Street. “We watch to make sure that, during traffic peak hours, two lanes are always available to drivers—that the work isn’t bleeding out into the street. If there’s a problem, such as a light malfunction, we’re able to get out there. We monitor the cameras to see if timing changes are needed on the signals.

Eventually, says Fong, corridors between city and county intersections will be linked in one Sacramento Transportation Area Network, or “STARNET,' Sacramento County’s space-age name for the regional systems information center that’s in the works. The program will relay traffic information between the regional agencies of Sacramento, Roseville, Elk Grove, the county of Sacramento, as well as Caltrans, Regional Transit and SACOG—all supplying data that will ultimately expedite traffic flow in and around the city.

“We’re congested, all over. It is a problem we’re aware of, Fong insists, pointing to what she considers to be the most pressing one right now: “Easily the Howe Avenue/Power Inn corridor. What you see here is typical of what’s causing Sacramento’s traffic problems insofar as our growth is concerned. You have office spaces combined with industrial areas, where rush hours begin much earlier in the mornings and afternoons. This adds two or three hours onto the peak traffic times—in other words, 5:30 a.m. and 2:30 in the afternoon in addition to 7 to 9 and 4 to 6.'

Another big problem area, Arden Way from Del Paso Boulevard to Watt Avenue, faces similar problems for similar reasons, says Fong. In both cases, city engineers are programming signal retiming (100-second cycles to be increased to 120-second cycles, for instance) and a widening project between College Town Drive and 14th Avenue, to add capacity. Fong explains that these are two solutions that get results the quickest—the kind of solution commuters most like to see.

But these are not viable solutions for all the streets of Sacramento. She points to another area that requires more options: Folsom Boulevard from 65th Street to Power Inn Road. “We will be widening, yes, but with the Sac State expansion project, we have to take into account the need for pedestrian- and bike-friendly modes of transportation. We are working to plan that area of Folsom Boulevard so that it can service a housing, retail and business community. This is where organizations like Power Inn BTA (Business Transportation Association) get involved, to try to help their employees realize they have commute options.'

Fong holds up detailed charts of other problem areas they’re looking at, with plans for road-widening and signal retiming: the Meadowlands/Mack Road corridor in South Sacramento, and Truxel Road from San Juan Avenue to Garden Highway and West El Camino Avenue to America Avenue in the Natomas area.

If you’re stuck in traffic daily at any of these locations, help is on the way, she promises—but it will take some time.