A cell phone call and a crash

Dignitaries applaud as Governor Gray Davis makes the phone call

– When Gov. Gray Davis, standing just off Coyote Creek Golf
Drive, got on his cell phone Monday afternoon and gave the orders
to open all eight lanes of U.S. 101 from Morgan Hill to San Jose,
Caltrans workers standing by to pick up the road cones that blocked
the two new lanes listened.
GILROY – When Gov. Gray Davis, standing just off Coyote Creek Golf Drive, got on his cell phone Monday afternoon and gave the orders to open all eight lanes of U.S. 101 from Morgan Hill to San Jose, Caltrans workers standing by to pick up the road cones that blocked the two new lanes listened.

But they didn’t obey. They couldn’t, at least not right away.

Barely 10 minutes before Davis gave the orders, a big rig carrying jams and jellies from Salinas jackknifed in the middle of the highway at the Burnett Avenue overpass north of Cochrane Road. The non-injury accident caused a one-hour traffic delay for northbound drivers, putting an ironic twist to the ribbon-cutting ceremony that hailed the widening as an improvement to U.S. 101 safety and congestion.

“When I drove in here today, I heard people on the radio complaining about me and asking why they had to wait until I got here Monday for the road to be opened,” Davis quipped at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The truth is there was some work that had to be done over the weekend and now the highway is ready … $10 million under budget and six months ahead of schedule.”

The road was ready, but due to the accident it wasn’t entirely open until 2 p.m., nearly two hours after the ribbon cutting ceremony began.

The accident happened around 12:55 p.m. when northbound traffic flipped up one of the orange cones that was blocking the two new lanes. A two-axle truck veered into the far right lane to avoid the errant cone rather than run it over, but slammed into the big rig, causing the rig to lose its front left tire.

Shortly after the accident, the cones the governor ordered lifted were indeed moved. Instead of being moved off U.S. 101, they were moved across the roadway to cordon off the accident from northbound traffic.

“This was just one of those ill-timed accidents. We’re just glad no one was hurt,” California Highway Patrol Officer Terry Mayes said.

The day’s events, as twisted as some of them were, were perhaps a fitting metaphor for the five-year, $80 million project that traversed legal scuffles, battles with environmentalists and a significant change in scope (the project was initially intended to bring six lanes, not eight, to U.S. 101).

In addition to drawing the most powerful politician in California, the day brought together representatives from the county, the City of San Jose, the City of Morgan Hill and, among others, Sig Sanchez of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Sanchez, who has a portion of U.S. 101 named after him, has fought for nearly 50 years for various improvements to U.S. 101. Sanchez spoke about his reluctance over the last couple decades to admit that U.S. 101 held his namesake. Given the predicted 12 minute decrease in commute time, Sanchez said he would be reluctant no more.

“From now on when people ask me if that’s my freeway I’m going to say ‘yes, yes’ and don’t forget to salute when you see that sign,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez gave a brief history of the efforts to improve U.S. 101 over the past five decades. He told those in attendance “If you think there was controversy over this, you’ve seen and heard nothing (compared to when the U.S. 101 bypass off Monterey Road in Gilroy and Morgan Hill was built).”

“We fought so much and delayed so much it was eventually a good thing,” Sanchez said. “Eisenhower came up with the interstate freeway system and the feds gave us the matching funds we needed.”

The current U.S. 101 project was funded primarily by a Santa Clara County sales tax passed in 1996. The governor’s Traffic Congestion Relief Program contributed $25 million which helped expand the project to its final four-lane configuration.

“I heard a lot of speakers today, but I’m not sure if any of us thanked the taxpayer yet. They’re the ones who made this possible,” Sanchez said.

In both directions, U.S. 101 now has three regular traffic lanes and one carpool lane from Morgan Hill to San Jose. Already motorists are enjoying the greater ease of flow, in some cases too much.

The CHP said it is putting extra officers on patrol on that stretch of U.S. 101. Since the southbound lanes opened weeks ago, officers have issued numerous speeding tickets in the 80 to 90 mph range, the CHP said.

“Once you get to Cochrane Road you’re lucky to find anyone driving under 85 mph from what I can tell,” Gilroy resident and Apple employee Harold Sontag said.

Sontag commutes from “garlic town” to Cuppertino daily. He said the impact of the widening on his commute has thus far been “minimal.”

“I’d say I’m saving seven minutes, but that’s been the case for awhile because the economy is so bad. There’s less people on the road,” Sontag said.

Sontag is one of thousands of motorists who will benefit when a next phase of the U.S. 101 improvement project is completed. Sontag uses Highway 85 to get into Cupertino. That freeway and U.S. 101 will have their carpool lanes linked by summer 2004.

Currently, carpoolers heading from northbound 101 to northbound 85 must cut across mixed-use lanes to get into a carpool lane on the 85.

Absent from the event Monday was Gilroy Mayor Tom Springer who was dealing with his own personal transportation problems. Springer said he left Gilroy City Hall in the morning to reach the event, but before hitting the freeway he lost pressure in a tire.

“It was just one of those days where a dark cloud follows you and everything you touch breaks,” Springer said.

Springer is a member of the Valley Transportation Authority board of directors. Along with Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage, Springer advocated for the four lanes each way on the Morgan Hill-San Jose stretch of the highway.

Springer said he won’t be surprised if within the next two years pressure mounts to open another lane from Morgan Hill to Gilroy. Unused right of way in the middle of the highway, roughly from Leavesley Road to Cochrane Road, could be used to add a carpool lane, Springer said.

“When the economy improves and traffic levels increase, it’s something we’re going to need to look into,” Springer said.

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