Until about a month ago, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham commuted each week to Sacramento starting out on the Highway 46 corridor that leads to Interstate 5. But instead of continuing to brave the roadway that has claimed six lives in two months, Cunningham now departs north on Highway 101 before veering east from the Bay Area.
“I changed my route after the fifth fatal crash in two months,” Cunningham said. “I have a wife and four kids. I’d rather spend the extra 15 minutes in the car than take that risk.”
Cunningham and Vince Fong, R-Kern County, the vice chair of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee, met with Caltrans officials last week to discuss how to improve traffic safety on the corridor. Cunningham also will meet with California Highway Patrol officials.
Numerous deadly crashes over the years have given the Central Coast-Central Valley artery the moniker “Blood Alley.”
In 1995, a fiery head-on wreck on Highway 46 between Shandon and Cholame claimed the lives of Telegram-Tribune editor Jeff Fairbanks, his wife Ann, and their daughter Siena, as well as two others.
Haunting photographs of a mangled Porsche Spyder recall the fate of James Dean, killed in 1955 at the old Highway 41 intersection now known as the Cholame “Y.”
Turning across traffic at the Highway 41 and 46 “Y” intersection remains perilous today. It was the site of two of the fatal wrecks this spring.
Caltrans is in the midst of a major, long-term project to widen Highway 46 from two to four lanes, and accidents already have declined significantly on the four-lane stretches, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said. Each of the six recent fatalities occurred in sections of the corridor that are either two lanes or under construction for widening.
Crashes are largely attributed to misjudged turns across oncoming traffic at the “Y,” and drowsy, distracted or impatient drivers who have caused pileups throughout the 65-mile corridor.
“There is no aspect of the roadway that is unsafe or else we’d shut it down,” Shivers said. “Driver error is the reason for accidents.”
But Cunningham said that constituents have urged new action via an outpouring of letters and Facebook posts to his office.
“They rightly view this as a real public safety problem,” Cunningham said. “I intend to see (safety efforts) through.”
Prioritizing infrastructure for safety
Cunningham is advocating expedited work to complete an overpass at the “Y” — a historically dangerous junction that requires motorists to turn across oncoming traffic to merge onto respective highways.
The “Y” is the last planned section of the widening project that will extend from Paso Robles to Bakersfield.
In San Luis Obispo County, an $43 million, 4-mile section near Shandon is expected to be completed in December 2018. Then, a 4.4-mile Cholame widening project, budgeted at $46 million, is expected to begin in 2019-20, taking about three years. The $90 million, 3.2-mile “Y” section is the final phase in the middle of the corridor. It would include widening and an overpass but has no timetable at the moment.
Caltrans officials say that an expedited overpass at the “Y” could be designed and built within two-and-a-half years, but internal conversations are still taking place on the project’s timing and funding considerations.
“I’ve asked them to continue doing the planned work near Cholame, but to take some of the money allocated for that project and focus on the design of the “Y” overpass so that when is funding available, they can speed up the process of building,” Cunningham said.
David Rasmussen, the Highway 46 corridor improvement project manager, said they are studying Cunningham’s request.
“We’re going to consider a number of options and get back to Jordan in a reasonable amount of time,” he said.
Quick fixes after a deadly couple of months
Six separate crashes on the Highway 41/46 corridor have cost six lives this spring. The wrecks reported by the CHP were the following:
▪ March 17: A head-on crash on Highway 41 north of the “Y” that killed 22-year-old Jocelyn Estela Carballovillalobos when she drifted into an oncoming car; alcohol was believed to be a factor in the collision.
▪ March 31: A five-car smashup near the Shandon rest area after a semi-truck veered into a pickup, killing the pickup’s driver, 68-year-old Jesus Acebedo, of Bakersfield.
▪ April 20: A fatal turn at the “Y” intersection that killed 37-year-old Cheryl Vanwettering, 37, of San Jose, who was ejected out of a motorhome.
▪ April 30: A three-car pileup on Highway 46 near the Cholame “Y” that killed 71-year-old Michelle Saunders, who drifted into oncoming traffic.
▪ May 9: A head-on crash on Highway 46 East near Lucy Brown Road that killed 29-year-old Richard L. Lin, of Manalapan, New Jersey, after he drifted into oncoming traffic for unknown reasons.
▪ May 13: a two-car collision at the “Y” intersection that killed 64-year-old Robert S. Villegas of Bakersfield, when another car crossed in front of him to turn north onto Highway 41.
For years, community advocates have called for safety upgrades.
“People need to know costs and problems and that Caltrans is working toward this, but it takes a lot,” said Mary Chambers, a Paso Robles citizen behind the “Fix 46” grassroots movement. “The key is to continue to get together and come up with solutions.”
By the end of July, Caltrans will add seven miles of rumble strip, costing $121,000, on the Highway 41 segment from the “Y” intersection to the Kern County line, alerting drivers who drift to the side or center with a jarring rattle on their tires.
Meanwhile, as Central Valley residents head west for summer beach activities and the Mid-State Fair, the California Highway Patrol will increase its traffic enforcement presence.
CHP spokesman Patrick Seebart said that most of the crashes are caused by drivers crossing into oncoming lanes and making left turns in front of traffic.
“If we can just get the motoring public to pay attention to what they are doing, that will go a long ways toward saving lives,” Seebart said. “People have to avoid distractions. ... No texts, no calls, no social media, no email.”
Chambers has called for a CHP officer to patrol near the intersection and monitor traffic whenever possible.
“Officers do sometimes sit near that intersection and watch for violations, but if they get a call or make an enforcement stop, then they obviously have to leave,” Seebart said. “We do not have an officer who can just sit at that intersection and watch.”
Chambers also pushed the idea of planting a wooden dummy CHP car beside the road to scare drivers into slowing down. But that idea has been nixed because it could be too distracting to motorists.
Cunningham is floating the idea of lowering the speed limit from 55 to 45 miles per hour near the “Y” intersection as a temporary measure. Caltrans also will assess whether a partial traffic signal would be beneficial (the intersection now has yellow warning beacons), though that option could lead to dangerous backups.
“Whenever you slow traffic down in a high-volume spot, you risk backup,” Rasmussen said. “Generally, you want to keep the traffic flowing.”
Progress has been made
Since 2008, Caltrans has spent nearly $300 million to widen the Highway 46 corridor to four lanes between Paso Robles and Bakersfield.
The project divides eastbound and westbound lanes with a 60-foot median gap to prevent head-on collisions.
“This is a high-priority project for Caltans and for the state of California,” said Dave Rasmussen, the project manager.
Caltrans officials prefer completing roadwork in contiguous sections because it avoids multiple narrowing and widening zones, causing slowdowns and congestion. They also say that accidents occur throughout the corridor, not only at the “Y.”
“We are absolutely confident this approach is improving the safety of the traveling public,” said Shivers, the Caltrans spokesman. “We are optimistic the recent passage of SB1 (gas tax increase) will provide additional funds to continue the modernization of the corridor.”
Last week, contracted workers poured steel-reinforced concrete, excavated a hillside and worked to build a new bridge to expand the highway near the Shandon rest stop. Crews had to delay work on the bridge between November and May because of the environmental requirements during the wet winter months when Cholame Creek, now dry, was flowing with water. Property right-of-way negotiations and acquisitions can delay work as well.
“Usually we can complete a section about every three years,” said Karl Mikel, Caltrans’ project construction engineer. “We’ve made good progress, and we’ve had steady work since we began this project.”
Improving the “Y” intersection
At the “Y” intersection, the early-morning sun blasting into drivers’ eyes can create visibility hazards, according to Caltrans officials. Cars traveling at speeds of 55 miles per hour and above also must be aware of drivers often turning from a stop or slowed speed. Morning light tends to be more intense than the sunset conditions in the west, Mikel said.
Caltrans’ options include a “flyover” overpass that channels traffic continuously through the merger or an overcrossing with a controlled intersection requiring a stop, whether that’s a light or stop sign, Mikel said.
But Rasmussen, the 46 project manager, said that Caltrans will consider prioritizing a project at the Cholame “Y” that would build an overpass of some kind ahead of the widening work.
“Right now, these options are under evaluation,” Mikel said. “We’ll have to consider costs to construct, time to build, whether one takes up more of a footprint, environmental and right-of-way considerations. The goal will be an overpass that’s the most economical for taxpayers that still meets the purpose and needs of the project.”
No overpass would be built to connect westbound Highway 41 traffic to eastbound Highway 46 because that connection has low volume (most people don’t take such a circuitous route from Fresno to Bakersfield unless by mistake, for example).
The “Y” plans and timing will need to be fully vetted before any decision is made, according to Caltrans.
“These kinds of decisions don’t get made overnight,” Shivers said. “We just met with Jordan Cunningham less than a week ago and we’ll have to carefully consider these options. We’ll have to see what ideas are viable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many children Jordan Cunningham has.