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Caltrans to place buffer zone between workers, traffic

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Within the next few months, a revision to Caltrans' local safety protocol will be tested along some sections of San Diego freeway.

The change will make for a little less room for drivers passing by the selected construction zones, but extra space between the active work zone and passing traffic.

Local Caltrans officials have been discussing for a few months the possibility of such a change with its group of regular project contractors. Those contractors were given notice at a recent meeting with Caltrans that the new lane buffer specification will apply to certain future jobs planned along the Interstate 5 corridor.

Specifically, the protocol will apply to the planned re-building of the reinforced slabs at the approaches and departures of bridges at several points along I-5 in northern areas of the city and county, jobs that are still a few months away from going to bid. Construction crews will be required to provide for a 12-foot buffer between the active work area and construction cones separating them from passing traffic.

Crews are currently permitted to work right up to the coned-off edge of traffic.

“We selected this particular project because we could see it coming on the horizon as a funded project,” said Caltrans Deputy District Director of Construction Mike McManus, “and it was the type of project that our employees, who have to actually go out and be out on the ground, and contractors had mentioned and talked about."

Each section of the project requires a lot of people on the ground and about a full workday’s worth of time to complete — less time than jobs that get concrete barriers take but more time and more people than many of Caltrans’ smaller jobs require.

The modification may be applied to other future project contracts, McManus said, depending on how it compares with other modification proposals, such as barrier vehicles and increased California Highway Patrol presence. Exactly how the change might affect project costs is unclear, he added.

“Sometimes you can’t tell how much it costs you because you’re not bidding two different cases — you’re not bidding a with and without,” McManus said.

At the April 6 Caltrans meeting with the Associated General Contractors and the Engineering & General Contractors Association, Dennis Wilder, head of the Caltrans District 11 Structures Department, spoke of the increased level of safety the specifications are meant to bring. Though qualifying his statement by mentioning that creating bottlenecks is not a mission of Caltrans, he did mention the phrase “induce congestion” and said high speeds near work zones can be hazardous.

McManus further qualified the reference Monday. He said Wilder’s comments were said as a recollection of concerns vocalized before, and that they were brought up to quell fears of bottlenecks rather than suggest Caltrans was intentionally creating them. The change will, however, indefinitely reduce by one lane the number of lanes available to public drivers as they pass affected construction zones.

“We certainly are not trying to induce traffic congestion,” McManus said. “We’re very careful about establishing work windows for contractors, so that there is minimal, if any, congestion.”

A former maintenance chief at the Los Angeles Caltrans office, McManus said there are certain sections of freeway in other jurisdictions where the revised specifications would not work well, because the risk of bottlenecks would be too high.

“You can’t go down to one lane any time during the 24-hour period (in parts of Los Angeles).” McManus said, offering an example. “I don’t think that’s true in San Diego. I think in San Diego there are always time periods when we can get down to one lane.”

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