This holiday season should be the last when South Bay motorists suffer through horrible gridlock on their way to Southern California over Pacheco Pass Highway, a drive that can be torture on its best days and deadly on the worst.

Three realigned ramps could open next week at Highways 152 and 156, providing some relief now - but probably not much. The real fix comes in August: an elevated ramp, allowing eastbound drivers on 152 to soar over vehicles headed west and turning left onto 156.

Caltrans also is building a truck-only lane along a notoriously narrow stretch of 152 west of that intersection. The upshot? A highway that for so long has struck fear in thousands finally may be tamed.

"Every time we reach 152, my sense of joy and anticipation are always tempered by the thought of my friend," said Brian Huynh of Redwood City, whose pal Eric Hsu was one of four people killed in a head-on crash with a truck east of San Felipe Road nearly two years ago. "I shiver just thinking about it."

That's why traffic crews are getting to work.

The two projects total $46 million and are the most extensive upgrades on this nasty highway since 1992, when 152 was widened to four lanes from Casa De Fruta to Interstate 5. Little has been done to the congested stretch of road west of there, except for adding a rumble strip down the median and creating a daytime-headlight section.

• The first problem: the perilous climb on eastbound 152 after San Felipe Road.

Driving east up the hill is fraught with danger. It's one lane each way, with a steep drop-off on the eastbound side, the scene of so many crashes and deaths on a road built more than 50 years ago to handle farm traffic and not commuters. And it's where Hsu and his passengers died, when his vehicle was clipped nearly head-on, rolled down the hill and burst into flames.

The solution? The truck passing lane, a one-mile improvement that should be completed by summer.

• The second problem: the 152-156 mess, and backups created when overly courteous drivers heading east stop even though they don't have to and let drivers turn left onto 156 toward Hollister. That may seem like a nice gesture, but on a busy Friday or Sunday night, traffic can ripple back to Gilroy - 13 miles away - or to I-5, causing monstrous delays and sometimes forcing the California Highway Patrol to direct traffic.

It is so irritating that one fed-up motorist stuck a handmade sign at that intersection, admonishing motorists: "Don't Stop, Stupid!"

The solution? A flyover ramp that will take eastbound vehicles over the intersection. By summer, there will be no need for more homemade signs calling others stupid.

Oh, what a nightmare this intersection can be. Last year, George Armes of San Jose figured he would beat traffic by driving through here the morning of Thanksgiving Day. A holiday, light traffic, no tie-ups, right?

"Bad idea," Armes said. "The minute we turned from 101 south to 152 east, I saw nothing but brake lights."

The crash rate along the stretch from 101 to 156 is as much as 58 percent higher than on similar two-lane highways in California. Since 2000, 50 people have been killed and 916 injured on 152.

And this year, crashes and injuries are on pace to be the highest in the last seven years.

The rise in collisions could be linked to the work now occurring. The speed limit was lowered to 40 mph after too many drivers raced through the area, ignoring construction barriers and the trucks hauling dirt and gravel through the work zone.

A few weeks ago, a truck carrying frozen chickens failed to make the left turn toward Hollister, overturning and spilling its load. It took hours to clean up that mess.

"This will alleviate a lot of congestion," California Highway Patrol officer Chris Armstrong said, adding he's not certain if construction has actually led to more wrecks, but "there is some unfamiliarity and a lot of frustration due to the roadwork."

Road crews also have been frustrated, but not for the usual reasons associated with building new ramps. Here, it's critters causing concern - like the rattlesnake sunning itself by the contractor's water tank, the mountain lion that scared the daylights out of another crew member or the herd of 30 wild pigs that tore through the area one day.

"Wildlife is really abundant down here," said lead engineer Brian Wiedmann of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which is overseeing the work at 152-156. "It makes it interesting."

Then there's the somber side. The lives lost.

Each day as project manager Bill Shurbert of RGW Construction peers over the 152-156 site, he sees more than concrete rails, traffic cones and earth-moving equipment. He also sees two white crosses, a memorial to a few of those who have died here.

"You wonder about the tragedies," Shurbert said. "Someone lost a dear part of their family and it's sad. We want to make it safer."


What has your experience been traveling over Pacheco Pass? How much do you think road improvements will help? Contact Gary Richards know atmrroadshow@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5335.