When work on the Highway 180 "braided ramps" project in Fresno began more than a year ago, motorists expressed high hopes for an end to the madness of drivers jockeying for position to merge onto or off of the highway from Highways 41 and 168.
Construction for the 1.3-mile interchange among the three freeways is due to be completed on schedule before the end of this year, said Jose Camarena, a state Department of Transportation spokesman in Fresno.
But that's little comfort to drivers stuck in rush-hour traffic, fuming over lane and ramp closures as construction crews continue their work.
In the 14 months since work on the $49 million project began in earnest, Caltrans and its contractor, R&L Brosamer Inc., have issued more than 40 commuter alerts.
Those sporadic alerts warn drivers of lane closures, ramp shutdowns, restriping work, shifting lanes one way or another or installation of concrete barriers or signs.
The ever-changing traffic-lane patterns and clogged arteries through the construction area have prompted some drivers to abandon the freeway altogether and use surface streets for their daily commute to or through central Fresno.
Others are resigned to enduring the delays — hands clutching the steering wheel, foot poised to hit the brake pedal, teeth clenched as they mutter sweet nothings under their breath about the driving talent of their fellow commuters.
Tanya Osegueda, a public relations professional who lives in southeast Fresno, drives Highway 180 daily en route to work in the northwestern reaches of the city. For her, surface streets just aren't an option.
"Unfortunately, I have to take 180 to and from work each day" to eventually get on Highway 41 north, she said. "Alternate routes don't really work for me as they still tack on additional time."
Osegueda leaves her home near Fowler Avenue and Highway 180 about 7:20 every morning to get to Palm and Nees avenues by 8 a.m. "It shouldn't take 40 minutes, but it does on some days," she said.
Camarena, the Caltrans spokesman, said he still takes the freeway to work, but not because of a lack of options or even a masochistic desire to sit in traffic.
"I have an interest in taking that route because I like to see what's going on with the construction," he said. "We know some people are taking alternate routes, but others are creatures of habit, and I'm one of them."
Neither Caltrans nor the city of Fresno are conducting traffic surveys in the construction zone, so there's no real way of knowing how many fewer drivers are using the freeway now compared to before the construction began; nor is there any reliable estimate of which city streets are gaining the most traffic as alternate routes.
"But intuitively, we know there's some volume of people avoiding that freeway parking lot, as I like to call it," said Patrick Wiemuller, public works director for the city of Fresno.
Wiemuller, who lives in Clovis, counts himself as a freeway refugee using the city streets during the construction. Ordinarily, he would be among the throng of drivers who make their way southwest starting in Clovis on Highway 168, then merge onto Highway 180 west for a mile and then jump onto Highway 41 south into downtown.
Wiemuller knows the perils of driving this stretch. In the pre-construction days when criss-cross merging was the source of congestion, his car was rear-ended by the careless driver of a pickup on Highway 180.
And he wants nothing to do now with the highway until the work is done.
"I saw the clogging of the freeway, the restricted lanes and lack of movement, and it's really a safety issue for me," he said. "I just try to make sure I give myself plenty of time to get to work.
Jed Chernabaeff, an administrative analyst for Tulare County, utilizes a hybrid strategy for his daily commute between his home in Clovis and his office in Visalia. His pre-construction commute took him on Highway 168 to Highway 180, then west to Highway 41, then south to Highway 99.
Not anymore, because the 168/180/41 interchange "is a mess," he said. He still comes down Highway 168, but now heads east on Highway 180 and takes Clovis Avenue south to Highway 99. He reverses course coming home.
"Believe me, when you commute every day and are faced with driving through this interchange, you almost try to avoid it at all costs," Chernabaeff said.
The commuter commandos remain optimistic that the redesigned interchange will be a marked improvement when it's completed.
No longer will drivers who want to go from Highway 168 to Highway 41, or from 41 to 168, have to merge into Highway 180 traffic. They'll have their own lanes.
Similarly, drivers trying to get off of Highway 180 won't have to dodge those merging from 168 or 41. Instead, a braid of ramps and bridges will separate the various on- and off-ramps.
But before that happens, drivers will still be dealing with more changes to the lane patterns as the ramp and bridge construction continues and those structures are tied into the freeway.
"Caltrans is doing a good project and it will help avoid some of that congestion," the city's Wiemuller said. "But you've got to have some short-term inconvenience for the long-term benefit."
Chernabaeff said he rolls through the work zone on weekends, when there is much less traffic. At this stage of the construction, he said, it remains a little puzzling how the confluence of ramps and lanes is supposed to work. Still, he said, "I'm hoping it will improve the traffic flow and allow me to get home in a quick and safe manner."
Osegueda, who lived in the Bay Area before moving to Fresno, "can't wait for the construction to be done. … I honestly fear that I will get into an accident every day (because) people don't know how to navigate the construction and it's a mess."
"I commuted in the Bay Area for years and this is a walk in the park compared to what I used to deal with," she added. "But one of the perks of living in Fresno was supposed to be not dealing with slow traffic."
"Believe me, when you commute every day and are faced with driving through this interchange, you almost try to avoid it at all costs." — Jed Chernabaeff, an administrative analyst for Tulare County who lives in Clovis
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, firstname.lastname@example.org or @tsheehan on Twitter.