Drivers who regularly travel through the interchange of highways 180, 168 and 41 in central Fresno will have some major changes to get used to starting this weekend.
The westbound lanes of Highway 180 will be closed Friday night and into Saturday evening as crews prepare to open the first major portions of Caltrans' "braided ramps" to reduce the white-knuckle, crisscross merging that plagued the interchange for more than a dozen years.
Starting about 8 p.m. Saturday, drivers rolling from Highway 168 onto westbound 180 will be using a new bridge. Drivers who want to get off westbound 180 and onto Highway 41 will exit under the bridge on a new off-ramp.
And drivers who want to get from Highway 168 onto northbound 41 will have their own separate lane on the north side of Highway 180; they will no longer have to blend in with westbound traffic.
"When we open the roads, traffic will be drastically different," said Pat Hinterberger, assistant project manager for contractor R&L Brosamer Inc. "Decision points will come sooner for drivers. … Traffic from westbound 180 wishing to get onto northbound Highway 41 will exit approximately one mile sooner than right now."
First, however, crews will need to completely shut down the westbound lanes of Highway 180 at the Chestnut Avenue off-ramp starting at midnight Friday. Also closed will be on-ramps to westbound 180 from Cedar and Chestnut avenues and Highway 168; off-ramps from westbound 180 to Highway 41 north and south; and the McKinley Avenue on-ramp to westbound Highway 168.
Two lanes of Highway 180 west are expected to reopen by noon Saturday, and the connector ramps should be open by 8 p.m. Saturday, said Caltrans project manager Neil Bretz.
While the road and ramps are closed, Bretz said, crews will move temporary concrete safety barriers to accommodate the new traffic patterns, install new overhead signs and restripe lanes.
There is no official detour for the Highway 180 closure; drivers heading west will have to take the Chestnut Avenue off-ramp and use surface streets such as Olive or Belmont avenues to get beyond Highway 41, where the construction zone ends.
California Highway Patrol Capt. Dave Paris said drivers need to slow down and pay close attention to signs, lights and their own driving as they navigate the new interchange.
"When you develop something like this, you have a lot of affected traffic, and people have to be aware and attentive of their surroundings when they reach these construction zones," Paris said. "The goal is for zero collisions during this switch in the flow of traffic … without any property damage or personal injury."
The work is all part of a $49 million project to eliminate the merging congestion and confusion that often clog the 1.4-mile stretch of Highway 180 in both directions during peak commuting hours. A similar scheme of new bridges and off-ramps is being built for the eastbound lanes of Highway 180, and Hinterberger said those structures will likely be ready to carry traffic in about a month.
Construction began more than a year ago. There remains, however, more work ahead. When the project started in the summer of 2012, representatives from the California Department of Transportation and the contractor said they expected the project to be done this winter. Now, the target date for completion has been pushed back to early or mid-spring of 2014, Bretz said.
"Any kind of project this size, you're always going to have things come up during construction," Bretz said. Weather and temperature concerns slowed some of the concrete paving work, and the contractor also had some equipment issues, "but one of the biggest issues is that we've added several new safety features to the project."
Those features included replacing metal railings with concrete barriers to improve safety and reduce long-term maintenance, and expanding paved areas in the medians and around the on- and off-ramps — another feature to make the road safer for maintenance crews, Bretz said.
The delays are not expected to push the project over its $49 million budget. "We have a contingency built into the original budget which will accommodate the additional cost," Bretz said. "We foresaw additional changes in the construction phase and we budgeted for that.
"We felt the additional month or two delay was well worth the safety to our staff as well as the public," he added.
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