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The Interstate 880-Highway 92 interchange, seen Tuesday in Hayward, is among several roadwork projects along the I-880 corridor (ARIC CRABB/STAFF)

From the Santa Cruz mountains to the outskirts of downtown Oakland, the 25-year effort to upgrade the Highway 17-Interstate 880 corridor is getting serious attention -- again.

Tall cranes stretch nearly 75 feet skyward along I-880 near Fifth and High Streets in the East Bay. Crews scurry behind temporary concrete barriers at the 92-880 interchange in Hayward, hoping to complete that job late next year. And paving crews will soon fan out on three projects within Santa Clara County.

Metering lights will be turned on this spring between Milpitas and San Jose. Carpool lane extensions are coming south of Oakland and between Milpitas and San Jose.

Since the mid-1980s, more than $3 billion has been spent to widen the Nimitz and Highway 17 and rebuild nearly two dozen interchanges. This latest spurt is as impressive.

The new East Bay improvements from Oakland to Hayward will run about $450 million. Add in $325 million for the projects in Santa Clara County, including $150 million to rebuild the Stevens Creek Boulevard interchange outside Valley Fair.

But to many, the best news about the coming work is this: smoother roads.

Caltrans is set to repave two sections of Highway 17 and a stretch of I-880 within Santa Clara County early next year. The state will also replace badly damaged concrete slabs on I-880 between High and Fifth streets in Oakland next year, and follow that up in another year or so with a complete repaving of that area.

About time, say weary motorists on both ends.

"The road repairs cannot come soon enough," said Christian Parks of Santa Cruz, who has been making the trek over Highway 17 to Los Gatos for seven years. "There are patches of road that are perpetually broken, they get superficially covered but the cracks and holes reappear soon after. I would like to see a complete repaving of the Santa Clara County side."

And from up north, Tim Young of Alameda calls the conditions on 880 "beyond terrible. It badly needs to be repaved if not entirely uprooted and resurfaced from the foundation up."

Scheduled this spring is the repaving of I-880 from I-280 next to the Valley Fair shopping center to Highway 101 through San Jose and between Highway 9 and Highway 85 outside Los Gatos. Then will come a major repaving and safety upgrade from the Santa Cruz County line to Idylwild Road.

If it seems like these roads have been under construction for a lifetime, they almost have.

Hundreds of big rigs lumber out from the Port of Oakland each day to locations across the state and nation, and "the pounding the road takes with respect to this heavy truck traffic is why it is in such need of repair," said Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland.

Despite the billions in improvements, the I-880 commute ranks as the region's third-worst drive, behind the west I-80 approach to the Bay Bridge and the I-580 trek through the Livermore valley.

How bad is it? Kaye Caisse of San Leandro leaves home at 5:45 a.m. to beat traffic to Berkeley, where she works at Bayer HealthCare in the accounting department.

"If I leave one hour later in the morning or evening it can add an extra 20 to 30 minutes, sometimes more," she said. "An extra lane on 880 going through the Oakland area would be great.

"Widening the lanes would be great, too. There are not too many spots on this stretch that have shoulders in the fast lane for cars that are disabled. When they break down, they block the entire lane, causing huge delays."

Smile, Ms. Caisse.

The 880 work near Oakland will widen existing lanes from 11 to 12 feet, plus add 10-foot shoulders and improve the narrow cattle-chute-like ramps into decent merging areas.

Despite all the previous changes, the drive almost anywhere on these highways can test one's patience. An MTC study of major commute corridors in the Bay Area found the Fremont-to-Oakland stretch to be the most unreliable. Drivers have to set aside an extra 13 minutes per trip on top of their normal commute to deal with unpredictable backups.

It even drives other traffic engineers nuts. Matthew Jue works for the city of Campbell, and his commute to Fremont is maddeningly unpredictable. So sometimes when he goes home at night he turns off 880 at Bascom Avenue and takes a twisted path home: Hedding to Oakland/Main to Abel to Milpitas Boulevard/Warm Springs to Warren to Fremont Boulevard to Cushing Parkway to Boyce Road.

Whew. Asked in an e-mail to describe his commute, Jue said simply: "Mizzzzerable."

Hang tough. There is one thing certain about these roads: Changes are coming.

Go to www.i880corridor.com or www.vta.org for more details on the I-880 and Highway 17 projects. Contact Gary Richards at mrroadshow@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5335.