EDITOR'S NOTE: Work is under way to convert Mission Boulevard into a connector from Interstate 680 to Interstate 880 in Fremont. But decades ago, there was a different plan. Here is a 1993 story about the South Bay's "Forgotten Freeway."

Print Run Date: 7/11/93

Mike Risso slouched back in the driver's seat of his red '93 Saturn, not sure whether to scream or yank the steering wheel, pull a U-turn, chuck it and return home to Tracy.

For 20 minutes his car idled on Calaveras Boulevard near Meryvn's in Milpitas, mired in another traffic jam on the South Bay's forgotten highway. Risso's car had inched three, maybe four, car lengths ahead.

"What's it like? Exasperating, frustrating, excruciating . . . whatever word you want to use, " said Risso, a mechanical design engineer at Lockheed. "Oh, and disgusting, too."

Intended to be little more than a busy small-town street, Calaveras Boulevard has become 1.7 miles of torture while serving as the South Bay's most direct connector between interstates 680 and 880. On a bad day, the short jaunt can turn into 25, 35, even 45 agonizing minutes of creep and stop, the six traffic signals seeming like 60, cars in left-turn lanes stretching forever and faceless commuters cursing whoever created this mess.

Officially, it's part of Highway 237. Unofficially, it's a street running smack through a city with little political clout and clogged by out-of-town commuters from Fremont, Tracy, Dublin, Modesto and Pleasanton -- commuters with less clout than the city through which they create daily havoc.

Next year, when all traffic signals are removed on 237 west of the 880 interchange, making that a true freeway sure to entice more traffic, there's one sure bet:

The Calaveras nightmare will get worse.

Oh, it won't be as bad as in 1971 when I-680 opened and the traffic on Calaveras doubled from 15,000 vehicles a day to 30,000 by 1972. But today's 45,757 vehicles daily could easily rise to 50,000 by 1994.

"We're like the neck of an hourglass, " said Milpitas Councilman Skip Skyrud. "At the top are Alameda, San Joaquin, Contra Costa counties. At the bottom is Silicon Valley.

"And Milpitas . . . no matter which way you turn the hourglass, we're the bottleneck."

Planners didn't intend this. Four decades ago, when the blueprints for 680 and 880 were still wet, they knew the two freeways would need to connect, and the solution was the South Bay Freeway.

New to the valley? Never heard of it? Maybe that's because it disappeared from state maps around 1980.

As early as 1958, planners imagined a freeway from North First Street in San Jose to Dixon Landing Road/I-880 to Scott Creek Road at I-680. On maps in the '60s, a broken line covered the route, leaving many commuters to believe that, like Highway 85, it would someday be built.

But in 1972, with the California Department of Transportation strapped for cash after a highway-building binge, the state opted for Calaveras, calling it an "interim traversable" route.

Now, 21 years later, we have no South Bay Freeway, no new plans for a 680-to-880 connector and a beat-the-backup mentality that sends commuters into a daily frenzy.

They zip through the cinema parking lot off Abbott Avenue, dodge cars near the Burger King curve at Abel Street, try to cut time by going onto Main Street, weaving through the Town Center parking lot or turning into any of a dozen local streets. Everyone has little tricks, but sometimes, when it gets soooo bad, Roberta Emerson of Pleasanton simply pulls over, finds a restaurant and sits out her ride to work.

"Calaveras has changed me, " Emerson said. "I've learned mentally that it's OK to be late . . . that there's not a thing I can do. Of course, it usually happens on the day I have an early meeting. Then I begin looking for what driveway to cut into."

It's a street with so little respect that seldom do radio traffic reports ever mention Calaveras.

"Never, " Emerson said. "Like this road doesn't exist?"

On those frequent days of highway mayhem, fed-up motorists usually vent their wrath on the wrong place -- City Hall.

As a state highway, it's Caltrans' baby.

Milpitas can't tune a wacky signal light, fill a pothole or lengthen a turn lane. The city must call the state and wait.

"When (Calaveras) was taken over by the state, that's when our troubles began, " said Bob Browne, an administrative analyst for the city. "It was the beginning of a lot of grief."

Some relief is coming. Turn lanes around Abel will be improved and the first of three improvements of the 237/880 interchange should begin soon. That will provide direct access for eastbound 237 to northbound 880 traffic, in the hopes of enticing commuters onto the Nimitz and away from Calaveras.

And more widening of 880 is planned. But the axiom of "build a lane, fill a lane" looms. Traffic at 237 and 880 -- now roughly 100,000 vehicles a day -- will increase to 117,000 in two more years and 150,000 by 2005, Caltrans said. Worse yet is what's ahead on 680, the freeway taking all those who still work here but who have fled the high-priced homes of the Santa Clara Valley for less-costly homes in other counties

Now 115,000 cars a day travel 680; by the end of the decade, the guess is 160,000 will.

For far too many, Calaveras will be the road to work.

The solution, say Milpitas officials, remains the South Bay Freeway. Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, D-Fremont, is prodding the state to dust off its 35-year-old plans, but it would be optimistic to say the study is in the preliminary stage. And the initial price tag of $150 million quoted by Eastin's office is a cinch to be way, way low.

So it's the status quo.

"Unless something really strange happens, " said former Milpitas Mayor Bob Livengood, "what Calaveras looks like today is what Calaveras will look like for many years to come."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

THE ROAD TO CALAVERAS

Thirty-five years ago, transportation planners envisioned a new freeway linking Highway 237 with soon-to-be-built Highway 17 and Interstate 680. But plans for the South Bay Freeway stalled and the state turned to Calaveras Boulevard as an "interim" route between the two freeways.

1954 -- Highway 17 opens from southern Alameda County to Santa Clara County.
1958 -- Talk of a South Bay Freeway begins, extending from Highway 237 at North First Street in San Jose, northeast to Dixon Landing Road/Highway 17 in Milpitas and linking with proposed I-680 near the Alameda County line.
1963 -- Plans for Interstate 680 into Santa Clara County are approved.
1964 -- Proposed South Bay Freeway begins showing up as a dotted line on state maps. Calaveras Boulevard planned as an interim link from Highway 17 to I-680.
1966 -- Funding for the South Bay Freeway stalls and state focuses on upgrading Calaveras Boulevard.
1967 -- Improvements begin on Calaveras.
1971 -- I-680 opens from Fremont to south of Calaveras Boulevard, doubling daily traffic from 15,000 to 30,000 through Milpitas.
1972 -- State officially adopts Calaveras Boulevard as an "interim traversable" route between Highway 17 and I-680.
1973 -- I-680 opens down to I-280.
1975 -- Milpitas retains hope that South Bay Freeway will come to pass, designates Calaveras Boulevard as a commercial street with side street openings for the new Civic and Town centers.
1979 -- State tells Milpitas that South Bay Freeway will not be built.
1980 -- South Bay Freeway disappears from state maps.
1985 -- Highway 17 changed to Interstate 880 north of I-280.
1994 -- Highway 237 west of I-880 will be upgraded to full freeway. No improvements for Highway 237 east of 880 -- Calaveras Boulevard.

Source: Mercury News files, Caltrans and the city of Milpitas