It’s been five years and three phases of construction since the state started widening San Luis Obispo County’s notoriously dangerous artery into the Central Valley: Highway 46 East.
About 15 miles of roadway have been tackled so far, with two phases still in progress.
While a long-term plan to widen the county’s entire stretch of highway from two lanes to four is still years away, the changes so far have had a direct effect on safety, local authorities say.
“We’ve had our share of fatalities out there over the years. It’s really nice now with the construction out there. … It has had a nice impact on the traffic flow,” CHP Officer Bill Irons said.
The goal is to eventually widen Highway 46 East to four lanes from the Paso Robles city limits to the Interstate 5 interchange in Kern County.
San Luis Obispo County’s side of the corridor, known locally as “Blood Alley” for its long history of fatal accidents, is famous for being the site of the crash that killed actor James Dean in 1955.
The deaths didn’t end there. After 14 people died in 52 accidents in 1995, safety measures such as rumble strips and median barriers were added on the 28-mile stretch of road from Airport Drive in Paso Robles to the San Luis Obispo County/Kern County line, according to a Tribune report in 2002.
Two particularly bad crashes occurred in the 1990s. In 1995, a wreck killed five people, including then-Telegram-Tribune Editor Jeff Fairbanks, his wife, reporter Ann Fairbanks, and one of their young daughters. Four years later, another crash killed a family of four from Reedley along with a 24-year-old mother.
Widening the road was the clear fix. Years of local lobbying and state planning culminated in 2008, when construction finally began.
“It’s been a long, hard road, but what I’m happiest about is they’re still working,” said Mary Chambers, leader of the Fix 46 advocacy group that has pushed for funding and changes to the highway. “When we have fewer killed, that’s what it’s all about.”
State statistics show collisions have produced a lower death toll on average since construction began.
An average of 1.8 people died annually in 200 collisions from 2008 to Aug. 26 of this year compared to an average of 3.9 people who died in 186 wrecks from 2001 to 2007, according to state data. State figures on the highway’s crashes are only available back to 2001, state officials said.
Highway 46 East is a long, largely rural stretch of roadway through California’s backcountry that’s highly traveled by commuters, travelers and big rigs.
Average daily traffic on the highway is 20,900 vehicles, increasing to 25,000 vehicles during the summer, according to Caltrans. Semitrailer trucks make up about 20 percent of the traffic.
That’s more than in 2008, when Caltrans reported the highway’s average daily traffic was 19,400 vehicles. Local authorities say more people appear to be on the road now than ever before.
In San Luis Obispo County, of the 386 wrecks that occurred on the highway from 2001 through Aug. 26 of this year, 27 collisions killed a total of 38 people and injured 622.
CHP Officer Adrian Ayala, who grew up in Shandon and has been patrolling the highway since 2010, said almost all of the fatal wrecks he’s seen are head-on collisions caused by unsafe passing.
“One of the parties will cross over the yellow line whether it be to pass, being drowsy or (being) impaired,” he said.
Drivers not paying attention at one of the sparsely located intersections along the highway — such as the Cholame “Y” junction with Highway 41 — also play a part, Irons said. Wrecks occur at those spots when one vehicle turns in front of another or rear-ends a vehicle that slows to make a turn.
Adding an extra lane in each direction and separating the road translates into safer driving conditions, but there’s more work to do.
“A lot of the fatal accidents that have occurred, and are still occurring, are happening in areas that are undivided and haven’t seen the improvements (yet), from Geneseo Road east,” Ayala said.
An undivided area is where the opposing lanes of traffic are separated with nothing more than painted yellow lines, rumble strips and ceramic reflectors, he said, while divided roadways have either a dirt median or a physical barrier such as a guardrail.
In 2012, all but three of the 54 wrecks reported — three of which were fatal — occurred in undivided sections, Ayala said. He didn’t see another pattern in the data he reviewed for that year that would explain why 2012 saw so many wrecks — compared to 20 wrecks in 2011 and 31 in 2010.
“Growing up, I learned to drive in Shandon. And for me, driving on Highway 46 (East) was a major milestone because of the stigma of it being such a dangerous highway,” he said. “The stigma with the road meant it was such a big risk going out on it for the locals.”
One particularly gruesome wreck in June 2010 that Ayala responded to stands out in his memory.
Shandon resident Aaron Salgado, 26, had stopped in an eastbound lane to turn left into his residence near McMillan Canyon Road off the highway when he was rear-ended, pushed into westbound traffic and struck by a Dodge Ram. He died on scene, steps from his home. His wife, who had just given birth to their daughter two months before, heard the crash and ran outside.
“When I arrived on scene, there was the spouse on the side of the road waiting for me to do something,” Ayala said. “I felt his pulse, and he was deceased. I immediately looked up and could do nothing for her. That has stayed with me.”
Financing for the construction of all the phases so far, including a fourth upcoming phase planned for 2015, totals about $159 million. Design, environmental studies, acquiring private property for projects and related costs have tacked on $47 million to that total, with the fourth-phase design costs still in the works.
The majority of the money comes from Proposition 1B, a $20 billion transportation bond measure approved by California voters in November 2006. The remainder comes from other state transportation improvement funds.
Since 2008, about 10 miles of roadway have been extended in two phases from Paso Robles city limits at Airport Road heading toward Shandon. A third phase of work to widen an additional five miles, going on now, will expand lanes from Almond Drive to just east of McMillan Canyon Road in Shandon. Other changes have included new eastbound and westbound bridges over the Estrella River — each about 1,000 feet long — and four wildlife crossing tunnels under the highway.
The new bridges are a big improvement, Irons said.
“We’ve had issues in the past with people coming down … (and) having to negotiate that bridge. There’s no longer this steep hill but more of a flat area they can negotiate (now),” he added.
In 2015, crews plan to begin another roughly five-mile stretch to widen the highway from just east of McMillan Canyon Road to the rest stop just east of Shandon.
One day, the state will extend it all the way to the Kern County line, about five miles east of the Cholame Y intersection with Highway 41.
“We do plan to widen Highway 46 from the rest area, eventually connecting to the projects in the valley,” Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said.
Funding for such work has not been secured yet.
Kern County is responsible for widening its portion of the highway and is planning its own projects on Highway 46.
Partial Hwy. 46 East statistics
Data cover stretch from Paso Robles city limits to the Cholame Y.
* Through Aug. 26
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