After about a year and a half of construction, the end is near for congestion on Caltrans' new "braided ramps" interchange between Highways 180, 41 and 168 through central Fresno.
One last major closure of eastbound Highway 180 and its connector ramps is planned for Friday night and Saturday, weather permitting. After the lanes reopen Saturday evening, drivers will at long last use the final traffic pattern that will eliminate a dizzying maze of criss-cross merging on the 1.4-mile stretch of Highway 180.
"This is coming down to the great completion that everyone's been looking to for a long time," said Capt. Dave Paris, the local California Highway Patrol commander. "But this weekend is going to be critical for eastbound travelers."
Starting at midnight Friday night, the eastbound lanes of Highway 180 will be entirely closed as construction crews prepare to open the new off-ramp to Highway 168. Workers will also shut down the connector ramps from Highway 41 -- both from the north and from the south -- onto eastbound 180.
One lane of Highway 180 is expected to be reopened at noon Saturday, but the remaining lanes, as well as the on-ramps from Highway 41 and the off-ramp to Highway 168, will remain closed until 5 p.m. Saturday.
When the highway and ramps are fully reopened Saturday evening, things will look considerably different to drivers, and project managers warn that it's going to take a little getting used to. For eastbound drivers on Highway 180 who want get onto Highway 168, their exit will come up much sooner than it does now.
"We want to emphasize that people have to look for the 168 exit about a half-mile earlier," said Pat Hinterberger, project manager for R&L Brosamer Inc., the contractor for the $49 million braided-ramps job. The new pattern will take drivers exiting from Highway 180 onto Highway 168 on a new bridge, up and over traffic merging from Highway 41 to Highway 180.
Drivers who want to go from Highway 41 to 168 will have a separate bypass lane that spans the distance without having to merge onto the main lanes of Highway 180.
The schedule for closing and then reopening the lanes and ramps, however, depends on the cooperation of Mother Nature.
"If we get rained out on Saturday, we'll do the work on Sunday instead," Hinterberger said. "If we get a rainout on Sunday, we'll move the work to the next weekend."
Hinterberger added that while the final traffic configuration will be set when the lanes reopen Saturday evening, construction will continue for another couple of months as crews finish adding lanes, guardrails and other pieces of the project.
A similar "braided" pattern, with different sets of merging lanes crossing over and under one another, was put in place a few weeks ago on the westbound lanes of Highway 180. Work on the new ramps is expected to be fully completed this spring.
"We hope this will be a safer configuration and we're happy to get it done," Hinterberger said.
Paris said the safety of the transition will depend on drivers paying attention to signs, slowing down and getting used to the new traffic pattern, especially when the Monday morning commute arrives.
When the Highway 180 freeway opened more than a dozen years ago, the California Department of Transportation had enough right of way left over to expand the connections between Highways 180, 168 and 41 -- eventually. But planners apparently miscalculated how quickly the number of drivers flowing through the area would grow.
Within just a few years, engineers knew they had a traffic mess on their hands -- especially during the morning and evening rush hours. Anxious motorists had to jockey for position as they tried to merge onto Highway 180 while dodging drivers who wanted to exit to Highways 41 or 168, and the effect was what Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case McNairy once described as being "like bumper cars at times." A 2010 Caltrans traffic study revealed that over a three-year period that stretch of Highway 180 experienced nearly 240 accidents -- or more than one collision a week.
The braided-ramp plan was in the works for more than five years, but construction had to wait for several years because of no one quite knew where the money would come from to pay for it. It took a surge of federal transportation funds and about $6.2 million from Measure C, Fresno County's half-cent sales tax to support road improvements, to pull the trigger on the work.
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