BY LINDSEY HOLDEN AND NICK WILSON - A fix is on the way for the deadly Cholame "Y" intersection on Highway 46 thanks to $261 million in state transportation money that was approved Wednesday to repair roads and improve infrastructure in San Luis Obispo County.
The California Transportation Commission approved the allocation — which includes $197 million for Highway 46 improvements — at a Wednesday meeting in Orange County.
The commission's decision gives the region the most state transportation money it has ever received, according to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG).
Ron DeCarli, executive director of SLOCOG, said Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) — the 12-cent base gasoline excise tax increase that went into effect in November — has stabilized the state's transportation funding, paving the way for bigger projects that previously faced lengthy delays.
"This level of funding was made possible with the advent of new money from SB 1 that eliminates the volatility of available funding, which makes it difficult to plan projects, and allows for the delivery of projects that had to be cut previously," DeCarli said in a statement.
"It also creates added capacity for consideration of new projects, including competitive programs to further supplement our region’s multi-modal transportation needs."
Richard Rosales, acting Caltrans District 5 director, said the state money will allow his agency to continue widening Highway 46, "including grade separation at the Highway 41 Wye intersection, our major connection between the Central Coast and the valley."
The Cholame Y area has been dubbed “Blood Alley,” as it’s seen three times the number of motorist fatalities than the state average, according to Caltrans. Plans call for new interchange that would eliminate the need for northbound traffic to cross Highway 46 onto Highway 41.
The stretch of the highway has been a danger zone for decades for motorists, who whiz by in opposite directions without roadway separation.
Last year, at least seven people died in fatal wrecks in and around the Y, according to The Tribune’s archives. It's most famously known as the spot where James Dean died in a head-on crash in 1955.
Caltrans has worked to make the road safer in recent years by widening lanes and installing rumble strips. The California Highway Patrol also increased its speed enforcement during busy travel times.
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham started taking a longer route to avoid Highway 46 on his weekly commute to Sacramento after the fifth fatal accident in two months last year.
Cunningham and Vince Fong, R-Kern County, the vice chair of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee, met with Caltrans officials early last year to discuss how to improve traffic safety on the corridor.
Cunningham met with CHP officials and lobbied the Transportation Committee with letters for funding major safety improvements to the roadway.
"Fixing the issues on Highway 41/46 has been a primary focus of mine since I was elected," Cunningham said in a statement released Wednesday after the funds were approved. "This section of highway is critical to our economy, but currently has a fatality rate that is three times the state average. These investments will save lives."
Caltrans is progressing on a long-term road widening project, from two to four lanes, which planned to culminate in the Y location. But the agency was awaiting funding and hadn't yet completed design planning as of last year for the Y section.
Already, major stretches of the roadway have been widened and eastbound and westbound lanes separated by a middle gap, so they don’t directly border one another.
The additional state funds will bolster several other projects throughout the county:
• Expanded train layover facility in San Luis Obispo
• Highway 101 congestion relief near Pismo Beach
• Short-term improvements on Highway 227
• Highway 101-Prado Road interchange in San Luis Obispo
• Highway 101-Tefft Street interchange improvements in Nipomo
• Highway 41-Highway 1 intersection improvements in Morro Bay
• Highway 101-Brisco Road-Grand Avenue interchanges in Arroyo Grande
• Templeton-Atascadero bike and pedestrian connector
Caltrans was unavailable Thursday evening to discuss a timetable for the Cholame Y, but District 5 spokesman Jim Shivers said in November that work could begin in winter 2019, with completion slated for early 2023.