NorCal truckers keep their cool on CHP’s ‘3-hour tour’
Sun News Service
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. – With the sun peeking over the crest of the Donner Summit miles away, 18-wheelers line up for a long wait.
Trucks brandishing North Carolina, Nevada and Utah plates clatter to a stop along the Highway 20/Interstate 80 offramp, their blaring engine brakes coaxing 600-horsepower rigs to a stop along the steep downhill grade.
A few Smokeys – that’s the California Highway Patrol to you and me – check brake lines on trucks that have made a partial westbound descent from 7,200-foot Donner Summit.
With trucks lined up 30 deep, Highway Patrol officer Michael Pugh guides them down the 56-mile detour along westbound Highway 20 to the terminus of the detour at Bell Road and the westbound interstate in Auburn.
The detour makes possible a 12-mile upgrade of the nation’s most traveled interstate, which hasn’t seen a completely new ribbon of asphalt since Richard Nixon was president.
Since the detour first began in April, it has rattled more than just a few windows of residents used to the sound of wind, not Jake brakes, whistling through the pines.
As the $70 million construction project continues, tensions have cooled somewhat between residents and Caltrans officials. Truck drivers seem resigned to the fact that, at least for a while, a 35-mile-an-hour speed limit along a winding detour is necessary for the long-term health of a critical transport roadway.
From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night, truckers keep it low and slow.
“It’s like a three-hour tour,” Pugh said, chuckling. “In the beginning, there was a lot of animosity toward the whole process. These truckers are like kids, though. If you don’t watch them, they’ll speed.”
When the detour began in mid-April, trucks used both lanes of the Golden Center Freeway from Uren Street.
After a public outcry last spring during a forum in Nevada City over speed and noise, the trucks are now escorted through Grass Valley, in the left lane of the Golden Center Freeway to McKnight Way.
Signs warning truckers of the detour are posted as far east as Salt Lake City. Web-savvy truckers can look the detour up online.
Westbound “four wheelers” are detoured down Rollins Lake Road to Highway 174 from the interstate.
This was trucker Lionel Alvarado’s first time through the detour, hauling granulated sugar from Nampa, Idaho.
“I wouldn’t mind this so much, but I’ve got a full load,” he said. “This is like Checkpoint Charlie.”
Others haul chocolate from Illinois to Tracy, rolls of paper to Modesto and “road emulsion” in big tanks from Winnemucca to Elk Grove. One rig hauled links of Johnsonville brats, followed by a pig rig.
Ronald Pyle of Turlock said the construction is a small price to pay for a better road later.
“It takes a while longer, but it will be nicer when the road is done,” said Pyle.
Trucker Paul Dawson, from Fayetteville, N.C., said the delay wasn’t so bad.
“This is my first time. I’m a virgin here,” he said. His rig hauled clothing – men’s, women’s and children’s. “All of it. We don’t discriminate.”
It’s as if you can hear C.W. McCall’s 1975 cult classic, “Convoy” on the truckers’ citizens’ band radio as the escort begins.
“Y’all be patient, we’ll get through this,” one of the truckers says over the CB.
“Sometimes, these truckers get more worked up than a bunch of ladies playing bridge,” Pugh jokes, steering the police SUV along Highway 20.
By the time the trucks wind past the Washington overlook and the Five Mile House, there’s almost an hour of pent-up energy to unleash on the Golden Center Freeway.
“All right, we’re free to go,” one of the truckers bellows, gearing up past the McKnight offramp. “Let’s all stack ’em up like cordwood, boys, same time tomorrow.”
In April, more than 100 residents showed up at Nevada City Hall, directing their anger at Caltrans for poor communication and the dangers caused by multi-ton trucks rumbling on small, winding roads.
“We’re a partner in all of this, and we understand it’s inconvenient,” Caltrans spokeswoman Rochelle Jenkins said.
Since then, Caltrans has extended the low-speed escort, but other wishes didn’t materialize, including a “crossover” to allow trucks on Interstate 80 through a particularly tight stretch of road called the Colfax Narrows.
“We fought that tooth and nail,” said Pugh, a 25-year CHP veteran. “It wasn’t a question of if there’s going to be a fatal, it was a question of when.”
About 600 trucks take the detour nightly Sunday through Thursday, Jenkins said. Since the detour began, 340 trucks have been pulled off the highway for various violations.
The project could be finished by October, Jenkins said, ready to carry about $1 million worth of goods an hour for the next 45 years.
Some residents still have mixed feelings about the detour.
“It hasn’t even gotten slightly better,” said Coyote Street resident Kelly McNew. “I haven’t seen any difference at all. It’s very, very loud and very rumbly. I’ll just be glad when it’s over.”
The extended escort and lane-limiting haven’t seemed to help, either, she said.
“I don’t think, short of them ending the detour, that what we say will make much difference,” she said.
Resident Tom Grundy came to a spring Caltrans meeting armed with cards advertising a Web site panning the detour.
Keeping the detour confined to a single lane, he said, seems to have reduced the spread of diesel fumes and hot brake linings.
“They were able to see through our raised voices and able to get things done,” Grundy said.
Still unanswered, he said, is whether there’s a plan to keep the trucks on Interstate 80 and off the smaller highways.
“My perception is, they’ll delay that until the energy of the people runs out,” he said.
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