Kelly McDonough was in for a pleasant surprise when she turned onto Interstate 880 in San Jose recently during the morning commute. The bumps, potholes and deep cracks that for years have lined this dilapidated freeway between Interstate 280 and Highway 101 were gone -- replaced by dreamy, dark asphalt.
"The road surface is magically improved," McDonough said. "Great job!"
Highways from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe to the Central Coast are being repaved this summer at a pace not seen in years, even though the state and nation are coming out of a deep recession with major budget problems.
Spurred by an infusion of federal stimulus money, state bonds and millions of dollars in savings from low bids, segments of nearly every local freeway are being resurfaced, plus much of Interstates 5 and 80. Head out for a nighttime drive, and you'll almost certainly run into a cone zone.
"There is a near-record amount of Caltrans activity going on right now, nearly $11 billion statewide," said Russell Snyder, executive director of the California Asphalt Pavement Association.
He said Caltrans has been able to pave rough roads that might otherwise be on a long waiting list because of savings on bid prices of about 30 percent -- "the silver lining to the Great Recession," Snyder called it.
Among nation's worst
There is more at play, say numerous transportation officials. The condition of California's
"Caltrans is doing a terrific job at fixing the backlog of deferred maintenance on San Jose metro area freeways," said Hans Larsen, director of the San Jose Department of Transportation. "I hope this helps get us out of the No. 1 position as having the bumpiest roads in the nation. A fix-it-first policy direction has greatly helped."
Added Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission: "Caltrans is making basic road repair more of a priority."
Caltrans awarded 276 paving projects this fiscal year, and it says low bids have resulted in $163 million in savings. That may not seem like a lot in a state as large as California, but it has enabled Caltrans to spread out the extra cash on dozens of relatively cheap resurfacing projects.
There is $2.5 million for Highway 237, $2.6 million for Highway 85 in South San Jose, $3.6 million for Highway 17 from Highway 9 to Highway 85, $8.5 million for the I-880 job and $9.9 million on westbound I-80 from the Bay Bridge toll plaza to the Contra Costa County line.
Such projects -- laying a thin layer of asphalt over the roadway -- can extend the life of the road by a decade or more and free up funding for more expensive concrete work that involves ripping out deep sections of pavement. Among the costlier projects: Caltrans is replacing 3,345 concrete slabs on a 17-mile stretch of I-5 south of Sacramento, thanks to $34.5 million in savings. An additional 1,000 concrete slabs have been replaced along Interstate 880 through Oakland.
While one summer of furious work is helping make up for years of neglect, the long-range outlook is bleak. From 2005 to 2009, the cost of repairing state roads doubled from $3 billion a year to over $6 billion. Caltrans budgeted $1.6 billion this year.
Stimulus funds and money from the $20 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2006 will soon dry up. And when Congress reconvenes next month, the federal transportation bill will be hotly debated. It provides about 40 percent of the funding for transportation projects in California cities and counties.
"If federal transportation funding is cut by a third or more, as House Republicans are proposing," Snyder said, "it really will be Carmageddon for California."
At the city level, the prospects for keeping streets free of potholes also looks grim.
San Jose should be resurfacing about 240 miles of its 2,400 miles of streets a year. Last year, even with an infusion of $13.6 million in stimulus money, the city repaired 162 miles. This year, there's enough cash for only 75 miles.
"It's great news that some of our freeways will get fixed in the short term," Larsen said, "but in the long term, we are facing an investment crisis in keeping all our roads in good condition."
Even in these tough economic times, don't rule out ballot measures to fund road maintenance work. A study by the Mineta Transportation Institute found that 62 percent of those surveyed would support an increase in the gas tax if the money went for road repairs. But support fell to 24 percent if the revenues were to be used more generally to maintain and improve the transportation system.
Diana Trinh, of San Jose, expressed the feelings of many after taking a drive on newly paved Highway 85 in South San Jose this month.
"I love driving on smooth roads," she said.
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.