Monday, May 26, 2008

Fix I-5: A Testament to Human Idiocy

I live in Elk Grove, a city roughly 15 miles south of downtown Sacramento. I work in West Sacramento, due west of downtown Sacramento, just across the Sacramento River. On a normal day, my commute of roughly 22 miles takes anywhere between 30-75 minutes, depending on the route I take, the time of day and the ability of the general public to avoid accidents, which is no small feat given the number of 18-wheel trucks on the road in the morning and afternoon hours, all seemingly engaged in a ruthless game of chicken with the area’s local residents.

Because of the “Fix I-5” project beginning on May 30, all bets are off on how long the drive will take. Essentially, I’m Steve Martin, being told by Edie McClurg the situation he’s in, in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (you can see the clip here, but beware – Steve and Edie drop lots of f-bombs).

The highlight of Fix-I-5 is the repair of the so-called “Boat Section,” the section of freeway which runs directly west of downtown. What is the Boat Section, you might ask? Let Caltrans explain:

Caltrans engineers began working on the I-5 Boat Section in the 1960s and '70s. It was a difficult project. First, they had to de-water the area – no small task considering the Boat Section runs well below the waterline of the Sacramento River. The engineers used strategically placed pumps to drain all the water from specific areas along the roadway.

Once the water was drained, Caltrans engineers started building a seal slab that was up to 10 feet thick in some places. To hold the slab in place, the engineers drilled pins more than 80 feet deep. They put in thick retaining walls and a drainage channel between the seal slab and the pavement to catch any water that might penetrate the seal slab. All traces of water captured in this narrow channel and through a series of roadside drains are collected and subsequently pumped right back into the river. To keep a close eye on the pumps, Caltrans engineers installed lights on top of roadside pumps, so they could drive by and quickly check the situation. Those pumps are still in use today, and any time it starts raining Caltrans maintenance workers make the Boat Section a top priority.

After three years and more than $13 million dollars, the Boat Section was officially and quietly opened in 1970. Since then, the section has been subject to periodic flooding but was only closed once. That incident occurred in January of 1980 when a combination of heavy rains and a faulty valve at the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District flooded the Boat Section and closed I-5 for nearly an entire weekend.

In other words, the Boat Section is a magnificent feat of engineering which stands as a testament to human idiocy. How dumb is the Boat Section? We’re talking Embarcadero Freeway dumb. We’re talking Cross-Bronx Expressway dumb. And it didn’t have to be that way; Caltrans never wanted the damn freeway there in the first place. But apparently, the city’s fathers (and given when all this happened, you know they were all men) disagreed, and thereby proceeded to violate the trust placed in them to act as the guardians of Sacramento.

What I hope proves to be a minor inconvenience over the next six weeks, I can live with. But someone needs to call out the idiocy of those fools, those charlatans who allowed this damn monstrosity to be built in the first place. And that someone might as well be me. Curses, I say!

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