Time for state, county to look at freeway ramps

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Placer County opened the Sunset Boulevard overpass Sunday afternoon, culminating a year-long project to improve traffic safety and congestion along the Highway 65 corridor connecting Lincoln and Roseville. The new interchange should reduce the gridlock, fender benders and more dramatic accidents that have marred the Sunset/65 intersection for years, while improving access to Thunder Valley Casino as it nears the July opening of its 12-story hotel. Clearly, road improvements were needed for a growing population of commuters and residents. Placer County and Caltrans need to look at a handful of local interchanges next. Two recent wrong-way driving deaths on Interstate 80 in the Auburn area, and another wrong-way incident on the freeway Monday morning near Elm Avenue should alert transportation officials there might be a problem with on-ramps and off-ramps in the foothills — most noticeably access points in Old Town Auburn, in Newcastle and the Highway 49/I-80 interchange. Safe driving always begins with personal responsibility, but it’s safe to say the local ramps are less than ideal. This seems especially true of the Nevada Street access along westbound I-80, and the Maple Street access along eastbound I-80, entering and exiting Old Town Auburn. While the off-ramps offer enough space to slow down, the sharp, tight turns and short acceleration lanes make merging into traffic a challenge during times of heavy traffic. And with the ramps built so close together, it’s easy to see how a driver could become confused and head the wrong way onto the interstate. Historical photos show how Nevada Street and Lincoln Way in Old Town were once connected, before the freeway cut through. If the ramps were up to state and federal safety codes when they were built, are they still compliant? Is there a review process to determine whether improvements are needed? The same can be said for the eastbound I-80 ramps at Indian Hill and Newcastle Road. The intersection of these two roads and the ramps is awkward, forcing drivers to be extremely alert for moving traffic and lane changes. There are geographical concerns in the foothills that will keep the state and federal government from large reconstruction projects in the years ahead. Unlike the wide open spaces of south Placer County, which allow for larger cloverleaf interchange designs, the rolling topography of the foothills confines traffic designers to make do with the room they have. Still, more could be done to improve safety at these freeway access points. Signage can be improved, alerting drivers to the lane proximity and to exercise caution while merging. In some cases, cement barriers or guardrails could be added to define lanes and ramps better. According to the Federal Highway Administration, driver error is cited as the cause in 45 percent to 75 percent of roadway crashes, and as a contributing factor in the majority of auto accidents. Defensive driving is still the best offense in being safe on the road. There have been several troubling accidents involving wrong-way drivers that have resulted in three deaths in just the last few months. Transportation officials should look closely at Auburn-area offramps and onramps in an effort to provide a clearer picture for merging drivers and improve freeway safety.