Downtown state offices prepare employees for W-X freeway construction squeeze

04/04/2014 11:00 PM

04/14/2014 10:28 PM

From broad proclamations to lunchroom meetings, state officials have been putting out the word: Get ready for the W-X freeway squeeze.

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation and government operations secretaries issued a joint letter encouraging departments to consider flexible daily schedules, adjusting their workweeks or expanding work-from-home programs while the freeway is pinched to half its capacity for repairs starting later this month.

Those strategies seem like a sure-fire way to ease the impact from the freeway project on commuters.

But state departments are not rushing to change their business hours, at least not yet.

To understand the concern, consider what traffic on Interstate 5 is like before a sold-out Kings game as nearly 18,000 fans stream toward Sleep Train Arena. Take that image, double it, and you’re still about 2,000 people shy of how many government workers pour each weekday into downtown Sacramento.

According to 2012 data provided by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, of 70,000 jobs within a one-mile radius of Ninth and J streets in Sacramento, more than 38,000 of them are government work. State employees make up the vast majority – and that doesn’t include about 2,500 state workers off Highway 50 in West Sacramento, just west of the W-X zone.

So what the state does with its workers will impact the mess all commuters face starting April 22 when a short section of the W-X just south of Sacramento’s core is squeezed for repairs for all but one week through June 25. The state Transportation Department expects the roadwork’s impact will ripple throughout the area’s freeway system.

Although union contracts allow the government some leeway to schedule state workers around peak commute times, altering employees’ hours can be disruptive, said Dave Gilb, a former state Department of Human Resources director.

Some jobs require employees to collaborate face-to-face, he said. Other jobs involve working with other agencies or private firms that keep a regular schedule. The world’s business clock doesn’t stop for the state.

“You have to take a look at your operations and ask, ‘Am I better served to flex (schedule) and maybe not have everybody here at the same time?” Gilb said. “Or am I better served by accepting employees will run late?”

“You also have to think about whether your employees are more productive (with a flexible schedule) or spending an extra hour on the freeway?” Gilb said. “Many of them are going to want to go home early.”

So for now, state departments are raising employees’ awareness that the highways will soon be gummed up and encouraging them to find alternatives to driving in.

The 900 employees who work at CalSTRS’ massive West Sacramento tower just over the river have a bird’s-eye view of the freeway section that will soon partially close. Like other agencies, it has used email, its intranet and person-to-person meetings to highlight awareness.

The fund’s personnel managers aren’t committing to changing employees’ hours just yet. They will be “assessing the impact on a daily basis” once the roadwork starts, according to spokesman Michael Sicilia, and will consider flexible scheduling if necessary.

Elsewhere, legislative staff on Friday scheduled a meeting in the Capitol to talk about the project and how to deal with it. At CalPERS’ headquarters, which sits at ground zero near the intersection of I-5 and the W-X freeway, officials discussed the project at an informational “green fair” held this week during employees’ lunch breaks.

The state Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters on I Street has held noontime sessions in the cafeteria so staff could ask Caltrans officials about the project and discuss alternative routes and transit options.

Patrice Bowen, an agency employee who commutes daily down Highway 50 from the Gold River area, said the message has gotten through.

On a good day, her drive to work takes a half-hour. On a bad day, it can take twice or three times as long. She figures that two solid months of bad days are coming.

“I’ve got some work to do,” she said. “I’ve got to map out a new route, find the path of least resistance.”

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