Aerial view of Hwy. 101 and the Indianola cutoff. | Via Business Wire.

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More than 20 years after Caltrans established the “safety corridor” between Arcata and Eureka, lowering the speed limit and installing digital “Your Speed” signs as a temporary fix aimed at reducing deadly collisions, construction is nearly set to begin on the final components of a wholesale redesign of this section of Hwy. 101.

On Thursday, Watsonville-based construction company Granite announced that it has been awarded the $46 million contract for the project, which entails the construction of an undercrossing at Indianola cutoff, a traffic signal on 101 north at Airport Boulevard and closure of the median openings at Mid-City Motor World, Bracut Industrial Park and the Bayside cutoff.

The new design elements along this six-mile stretch of roadway will eliminate many of the dangerous traffic crossings, which have resulted in numerous fatal collisions. Two of the intersections — those at Mid-City Motor World and Indianola Cutoff — had more than double the state average rate of serious collisions (those resulting in serious injury or death), before the safety corridor was implemented.

Once the new project is completed — expected by the end of 2025 — Indianola Cutoff will be extended to run underneath a newly constructed bridge, with north- and southbound traffic passing overhead. The freeway will have a slight incline as it approaches this undercrossing from either direction.

Caltrans Project Manager Jeffrey Pimentel said the design of the Indianola interchange has been updated to include a connection with the Humboldt Bay Trail, which is expected to be complete by next summer

Closure of the median openings elsewhere will force drivers to take some longer routes. For example, anyone leaving Mid-City Motor World for destinations to the south will first have to turn north onto 101 and head to the Indianola undercrossing to reach the southbound lanes.

Similarly, drivers will be no longer be able to make lefthand turns from the Bayside cutoff to Hwy. 101 south, a maneuver that requires a dangerous acceleration across the two lanes of speeding traffic on 101 north. Instead they’ll need to head south to Indianola or north to Arcata to reach the southbound freeway.

The traffic signal at Airport Boulevard will only affect northbound traffic (it’s called a “half-signal”). It will turn red to allow southbound cars to safely make the left turn across 101 north to access Airport Boulevard and the various businesses along Jacobs Avenue.

In public meetings, Caltrans officials and public safety advocates have argued that the minor inconvenience of these re-routes and stoppages are a small price to pay for fewer traffic deaths. 

The California Coastal Commission approved the project in 2019 only after adding some conditions, including more proactive planning for sea-level rise.

In a phone conversation Friday, Pimentel said the project has design includes a feature known as a seat-type abutment for the Indianola undercrossing. 

With this design, Pimentel said, “we’re able to facilitate raising the structure into the future if we need to for sea-level rise without having to reconstruct it [entirely].”

The Coastal Commission is also requiring Caltrans to develop a comprehensive adaptation implementation plan for this stretch of 101, and Pimentel said the agency is working with various local stakeholders to develop strategies for the various sections. The plan must be completed by 2025.

Other safety-enhancing project elements have already been completed. These include a cable median barrier, lengthened acceleration and deceleration lanes, newly constructed bridges over Jacoby Creek and Gannon Slough and replacement of old tide gates along Humboldt Bay.

The total project cost for this next portion of work comes to about $51.4 million, including some items furnished by the state, Pimentel said. 

“The department is just excited to hit this milestone,” he said. Caltrans is working on a public outreach plan to inform the public about project updates and what to expect during construction. In the meantime, Pimentel suggested keeping tabs on the Caltrans District 1 Facebook page and website.

Detail from the cover page of Caltrans’ project plans.