When San Francisco removed the Embarcadero and Central freeways, it helped launch a property boom that made the city’s real estate some of the most valuable in the country. Across the Bay, Oakland is seeing a similar renaissance with the removal of Lake Merritt’s 12th Street Viaduct and the Cypress freeway relocation. Oakland (yes Oakland) has now passed San Jose to become the nation’s 4th hottest rental market. There is now talk in Oakland of removing I980 as well.
Inner-city highway removal has been so successful, you have to wonder why many cities cling to their outdated design. A really awful example of this backwards thinking can be found in Sacramento with the Capital City freeway:
It’s the Sacramento region’s worst freeway bottleneck, by far. Every day, traffic comes to a standstill on the Capital City Freeway near the American River. The snarls are even worse some Saturdays.
Now, after years of debating what to do, state and local leaders say they’ve reached a resolution: It’s time to drop the small-town mindset and go for a big fix.
Caltrans has begun laying the groundwork for a $700 million freeway widening from midtown to the junction with Interstate 80. That includes widening the American River bridge to add a new multi-use lane in each direction, as well as building wider shoulders for stalled cars to pull over, a separate lane on the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, and other improvements. The proposed project area is 8 miles long.
The questions: Where will the money come from, and how long will it take to get done?
Caltrans officials say the project is so big and the funding sources so uncertain that it may not happen for a decade. That timeline is typical for major transportation projects in California.
But the region’s population is expected to grow in that time, including new housing adjacent to the Capital City Freeway at McKinley Village, putting more pressure on an already failing freeway. That section of the Capital City Freeway accounts for one-third of the Sacramento Valley’s freeway delays, which state highway data pegs at 3 million wasted hours.
Some history: The Capital City freeway formed the original I80 alignment through Sacramento. It is one of those notorious 1960’s projects, which blasted highways through the middle of cities. Because it did not meet modern interstate standards, it was replaced by a new I80 beltway that went through north Sacramento. At that point, the Capital City freeway had largely outlived its original purpose — and yet the ugly elevated structure has remained.
Underneath the elevated structure, the old street grid remains. The neighborhood retains some of the classic craftsman houses. There is now light rail and a respectable amount of pedestrian activity from the nearby government office buildings.
Replacing the freeway with an at-grade boulevard would transform the neighborhood. And it would move the car traffic more efficiently. That is a much better outcome than spending $700 million and 10 years, just to make traffic worse.
Caltrans headquarters on the left, Capital City freeway on the right. Streetcar tracks running under and across the highway.
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