Don Pacheco death trap

Don Pacheco death trap

– Frustrated commuters can add another item to the long list of
factors increasing traffic congestion where Highways 152 and 156
meet at the base of Pacheco Pass – good Samaritans.
GILROY – Frustrated commuters can add another item to the long list of factors increasing traffic congestion where Highways 152 and 156 meet at the base of Pacheco Pass – good Samaritans.

For years drivers at the infamous stop-and-go intersection – known as the “Don Pacheco Y” – have taken it upon themselves to help solve the congestion problem. Motorists heading east on Highway 152 from Gilroy to Pacheco Pass often stop at the intersection – although there is no stop or yield sign – to allow stacked up westbound 152 traffic to make a left onto southbound Highway 156.

The courtesy is welcome by most “Y” regulars needing to make the often hair-pulling left turn onto southbound Highway 156, but the good intentions could actually be making traffic worse, said Lauren Wonder, Caltrans spokesperson.

“The good Samaritans have the right idea, but they don’t realize they’re probably slowing down traffic as a whole,” Wonder said. “Although it might help the situation for westbound 152, it also is a main cause of eastbound 152 getting backed up to (U.S.) 101.”

Tell that to Gene Zanger.

Zanger is a part owner of Casa de Fruta, a roadside commercial center on Pacheco Pass located about a mile and a half east of the Pacheco Y. For 30 years, Zanger has made the drive from Casa de Fruta to southbound Highway 156 on the way to his home just north of Hollister.

The traffic hasn’t always been a problem at the Y, but now he says if nobody stopped to let him make a left turn, he might never get home.

“When traffic is heavy at nights and on the weekends, people are nice and let a couple cars go,” he said. “I can’t imagine making the turn without them. I understand how this might back up traffic more on eastbound 152, but that’s for Caltrans and the VTA (Valley Transportation Authority) to figure out.”

Even if local drivers like Zanger heed Wonder’s suggestion to trade congeniality for the greater gridlock good, traffic jams are likely to plague the critical intersection for at least the next few years, if not decades.

Wonder said neither Caltrans nor the VTA has any immediate plans to upgrade the intersection which has recorded 23 accidents since January 2000. Motorists or passengers were injured in 10 of these accidents, and of those 10 injury accidents, one was a fatality, the CHP said.

Highway 152 acts as one of the few major thoroughfares from the Bay Area to the Central Valley and Southern California. However, the 30,000 vehicles that squeeze through the Pacheco Y each day are not enough for Caltrans to consider installing a traffic signal, and logistical problems revolving around grade steepness and view-obstructing rocks prevent two of the three points of the intersection from being eligible for a traffic light, Wonder said.

“We acknowledge the traffic is bad at times, on weekends and holidays especially,” Wonder said. “But the traffic volume on a consistent basis does not warrant a signal.”

A project recently started to widen the southbound U.S. 101 off-ramp to the Pacheco Pass Highway (Highway 152) – which runs east from 10th Street in Gilroy – and construct a loop on-ramp for westbound 152 to southbound 101 will help decongest the Y, Wonder said, although increased traffic flow to the two new Goliath shopping centers in the area is expected to attract even more commuters.

The upgrades are scheduled to be complete by early 2004, and were originally scheduled to be followed by $15 million in safety improvements for Highway 152 toward Gilroy Foods. But due to declining county tax revenue those improvements are currently on a county “hold” list.

Perhaps the quickest and most efficient solution to untangle the Pacheco Y would be to build a “fly-over” ramp from westbound Highway 152 to southbound Highway 156, said both Wonder and California Highway Patrol spokesperson Teri Neidigh.

“We’ve put officers (at the Y) to direct traffic at peak times, but it doesn’t help a lot, it just takes away our resources,” Neidigh said. “From being out there, it seems like an on-ramp to 156 might be the best solution, but who knows when that can happen.”

Not soon, Wonder said.

While the VTA’s “Southern Gateway Project” currently under review could eventually allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to improving the Highway 152 and 156 interchange, it isn’t likely to be completed for at least another 20 years – if approved.

“We’re all kind of hanging our hats on this study,” Wonder said. “Caltrans has discussed the benefits of a fly-over, but we have nothing in our specific plans (to improve the Pacheco Y) for the next three years.”

Along with the widening of Highway 152 to Gilroy Foods, other VTA “on hold” improvements planned for Highway 152 include the widening from two lanes to four to Llagas Creek Bridge; adding a traffic signal at the northbound U.S. 101 off-ramp; aligning the Westside Transport Inc. entrance with the Gilroy Foods east entrance and installing a light at the new intersection; and improving the intersection at Ferguson Road, according to VTA plans.

Until then, it looks like Pacheco Y commuters will continue doing the stop-and-go tango.

“We’ve seen a whole lot of growth in this area on both sides of the pass and not a lot of road improvements,” Zanger said. “I’m looking forward to a solution, both for time and safety reasons, but for now it seems like something we’ll have to keep dealing with until Caltrans or the VTA finds a solution.”