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How does the Caltrans project on Highway 41 compare to other similar endeavors?

Caltrans is installing a K-rail along Highway 41 between Excelsior and Elkhorn Avenues (Photo: FOX26 News){p}{/p}
Caltrans is installing a K-rail along Highway 41 between Excelsior and Elkhorn Avenues (Photo: FOX26 News)

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After decades of accidents along a two-lane stretch of Highway 41 in Fresno County, Caltrans is installing a center barrier that will keep people from crossing into oncoming traffic to pass slower drivers ahead of them.

That came after a push by a group called Widen Highway 41 that a woman named Lorna Roush founded after her cousin's husband Ken Atkins was killed in a head-on crash.

“This is a temporary fix. It’s a Band Aid," Roush said of the K-Rail. "We’re going to save lives from head-ons while we work on the logistics of getting that widened to four lanes.”

That group has the support of numerous lawmakers, like Assemblymember Jim Patterson, who represents California's 23rd District.

“We’re all feeling very good about the cooperation we’re getting from Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission. This is all part of what has to happen for these transportation bureaucracies to give the go-ahead," said Assemblymember Patterson. “This is an absolute safety necessity in that it makes perfect sense. If we can line up the funding, we will get on the transportation plan. If all of those fall into place, we will start constructing and designing pretty soon.”

Widening the highway is still the ultimate goal, but Assemblymember Patterson says that won't happen unless the project is included in California's 2022 Transportation Improvement Plan.

"In a couple of weeks, we will be meeting again with the director of Caltrans and we will start planning and making decisions on the next phase," said Assemblymember Patterson.

The work has been coming along quickly. The crews aren't just slapping down the K-rail; they stake it to the asphalt and each piece is bolted to the next so that it doesn't swing into traffic if it's hit.

Caltrans Construction Engineer Brent Haroldson says they've done tons of other work, too.

“Main thing here is also these intersection improvements at Laguna and Harlan. Those are to provide a left-turn pocket. They weren’t there before, so that allows for safer access for people to use the local roads."

“The crews out there have been removing some of the old roadway, they have been repaving it with a new rubberized asphalt. They’ve completed drainage work. At the intersections of Laguna and Harlan, they’ve also made adjustments to those intersections so that people can safely maneuver through there," added Caltrans District 6 Public Information Officer Elizabeth Yelton.

Supporters of the Widen Highway 41 group say the K-rail is a good solution in the meantime. Caltrans has also put in rumble strips and signs designating the six-mile stretch between Excelsior and Elkhorn Avenues as a no-passing zone.

The problem is, there's no way around impatient drivers. Already, people are using the shoulder of the road to pass the cars in front of them if they aren't able to cross into the opposite lane.

Roush says although those drivers passing on the right may be frustrating, it's much better than having them risk a head-on crash.

“If someone passes you on your righthand side, you may get side-swiped, you may end up in a roll-over. Chances of your survival are much greater than that head-on collision.”

Momentum for the project started picking up in May, and Caltrans announced in June that the area would get a K-Rail installed.

It might seem like it took a while between when Caltrans announced it was going to take the project on and when it actually started being built, but this was lightning-fast compared to other, similar projects.

Take, for example, the State Route 12 Bouldin Island Rehabilitation project in San Joaquin County.

The contract to install 4 miles of centerline barrier, reconstruct, widen, and relocate Highway 12 was originally supposed to take a little over two years. In the end, it took about five and a half.

The contract was awarded August 13, 2013 and construction was approved two weeks later.

It wasn’t finished until March 19, 2019.

“There were issues that arose during the project with the settlement of the fill that was placed for the realignment of Highway 12 which increased the cost and extended the project completion,” said Skip Allum with Caltrans District 10.

Right now, officials at the local, state, and federal level are all working to secure funding for the Highway 41 widening project. It comes with an estimated $65 million price tag. The K-rail cost another $8.5 million.

Congressman David Valadao requested $20 million from the House Appropriations Committee. That passed in the House, but is running into some issues in the Senate.

The Fresno County Transportation Authority has approved the use of Measure C funding on the project.

Even with funding that’s already approved or expected to be approved, Caltrans is still over $25 million short.

Plus, history tells us, the estimated cost could change.

"All projects, when they’re going through the early stages have a measure of contingency built into them for cost escalation in the future. We never know exactly what’s going to happen, but we try to plan ahead," explained Haroldson.

The State Route 12 project was first supposed to cost $29,049,024. By the time all was said in one, the contractor had been paid out $42,636,258. That's a 32% increase in cost.

Yelton says work to widen the project isn't likely to start until around 2025.

“As long as funding is secured for the project, it should be ready to go. We have funded and completed some of the work.”

Work for the K-rail installation is taking place from 7:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. each night between August 1st and August 6th. It’s expected to be complete Friday morning.

The area will be limited to a one-way road during the construction period, so you should plan for a delay of about 15 minute if you’re traveling through the area.

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“[It's] exciting, just thinking about how many lives are going to be saved. Each stretch that they work on every night, that’s just a little bit more," said Roush.

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