The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area is home to abundant wildlife, including fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and even snakes and bats. (Photos by Jose Luis Villegas)

Yolo Causeway: Classic Connector, Current Controversy

Frustration grows for commuters as a toll road is discussed

Back Article Feb 21, 2024 By Ed Goldman

This story is part of our February 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Today, 160,000 cars per day barrel across and often snarl the Yolo Causeway that spans above the 250,000-acre Yolo Basin, both a flood zone and nature preserve filled with wildlife. You may have to strain to hear even the most threatening trumpet of a swan or the angriest squawk of an American coot (the most common bird in the basin; also called a mud hen). Yet despite the overhead cacophony, thousands of birds still frequent the area, gobbling up nourishment on their seasonal north and south commutes along the Pacific Flyway.

The Yolo Basin itself was a pet project of the late Congressman Vic Fazio, for whom the 3,700-acre wildlife area is named. Fazio led the charge to fund the wetland’s restoration after it had fallen into disarray over decades. It was restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the national preservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited. Former President Bill Clinton dedicated the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, which is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in 1977. 

Before the restoration, in pre-causeway days, all that was there was the seasonal basin. To travel to and from Sacramento and San Francisco you had to negotiate narrow, often-flooded roads, which proved to be a boon for the riverboat industry. Trains found a way around the basin as well. Then, in 1916, the original Yolo Causeway was built. It began life as a wood plank road, which soon gave way to the almost-as-futile Tule Jake Road (which could only be reliably traveled in the summer). It’s not surprising to learn that the original causeway wasn’t envisioned as a masterfully engineered auto bridge, just as a necessary component of a flood control system, keeping traffic above on the move while the basin below flooded seasonally.

Today’s solid causeway, dating back to 1962, is composed of prestressed concrete. Officially known as the Blecher-Freeman Memorial Causeway, it was named to honor two California Highway Patrol officers, William Freeman and Roy Blecher, who were shot and killed in 1978 while on patrol on I-80 in West Sacramento. According to the Officer Down Memorial page, “The suspect was eventually apprehended and sentenced to life. He died in prison on April 16, 2016.” 

Some longtime Sacramento region residents erroneously believe that the Yolo Causeway connects Sacramento and West Sacramento. In fact, the causeway connects West Sacramento and Davis, both in Yolo County. What does connect Sacramento to West Sacramento is the 1934 landmark Tower Bridge (as documented in a 2021 installment of Back Story).

If necessity is the mother of invention, the causeway has also been a bit of a problem child. It’s currently undergoing a two-part makeover by the California Department of Transportation: a “pavement rehabilitation” project that began in late 2023 and a lane expansion, slated to be completed by October of this year, according to Gurtej Bhattal, a project engineer for Caltrans.

The 3.2-mile Yolo Causeway is an elevated highway that crosses the Yolo Basin.

Adding express lanes to the causeway, which is technically called an “elevated highway viaduct,” reignited some existing griping from commuters who already think the bridge is a chaotic speedway when Caltrans announced its notion to also make it a tollway, the kind Bay Area and Southern California drivers have dealt with for years (as have drivers in 36 states in the country).

A public meeting on the expansion and tollway was held in late 2023. While the TV news coverage made it appear a bit more rancorous than it was, says Caltrans’ Bhattal, “We were very gratified by how many people showed up and said they had no problem with it.” 

In fact, the bulk of the anger was directed less at the prospect of tolls, whose amounts haven’t been decided on, than at the commute itself, with its stop-and-go tie-ups and “idiots trying to negotiate the crossing at 90 miles per hour,” according to a regular San Francisco-to-Sacramento commuter. (The commuter, an appointee of Gov. Gavin Newsom, requested anonymity. “My boss has enough on his plate already,” he texted a day after making the observation.)

The proposed tollway, a first for the Sacramento region, would encompass an 18-mile stretch of I-80: New express lanes would run from the Solano-Yolo County line in Davis all the way to West El Camino Avenue in Sacramento. 

The toll lane would also snake onto Highway 50, from that often-perilous West Sacramento junction of I-80 to the union of Highway 50 and Interstate 5 in the capital. 

As KCRA-TV reported on that end-of-year hearing, “Drivers complain about the heavy traffic and long commuting times. Joan McPherson said her husband drives to Dixon in Solano County daily. He said, ‘It’s hell and people are nuts.’ He has to stay in one lane to stay safe. Otherwise, they are racing around him.” 

At the time, Caltrans spokesperson Dennis Keaton said, “We are hearing we need to do something to improve that thoroughfare and to improve the commute.” Keaton said that the proposed “tollway on the causeway” — it almost sounds like the agency is gearing up a jingle — would be “similar to the toll express lanes in the Bay Area and Southern California.”

Maybe. But like those regions, the view may be nice, but you might have to pay to see them.  

A Bridge Too Far?

In the late 1990s there were group-therapy classes for commuters afraid to drive across the Yolo Causeway. One patient, who worked as an executive assistant at a downtown firm, confessed to this reporter, “I know it’s irrational, but we all feel the bridge is going to be flooded or collapse at any moment. And if I drive it when it’s windy, I actually think my car is going to be blown off the road.” Bridge-crossing isn’t that uncommon an anxiety and even has its own scientific name: gephyrophobia, which can also be a fear of tunnels.”

As if we needed further proof that toll roads, tollways, toll booths and tolls are not only here to stay but also increasingly automated, The New York Times provided this factoid late last year: “Toll booths on about two-thirds of the 6,600 miles of American roads overseen by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association — which represents 130 toll operators in 34 states — no longer accept cash.” In short, welcome to the future, Sacramento.”

– Ed Goldman

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