Eye in the sky

When it comes to the increasing crisis of freeway congestion in Sacramento, traffic reporter Joe Miano has a terrific platform for assessing the problem.

Joe Miano’s platform is a single-engined Piper Archer II.

Joe Miano’s platform is a single-engined Piper Archer II.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Joe Miano began his takeoff roll from Rio Linda Airport’s modest landing strip at 3:59 p.m. on a Monday, pulling the nose of the small plane up into a gusty winter afternoon. Miano, a traffic reporter for radio station KFBK, has been calling out crashes and backups since the late 1970s, helping the rest of us navigate crowded roadway arteries during the commute. The red Piper Archer II, with the call letters of Miano’s radio station emblazoned on the tail, bounced in the wind and worked to pull itself up. As the single-engine plane gained altitude, Miano dipped the left wing and banked back toward downtown Sacramento and the hazy outline of office buildings on the horizon.

Continuing to climb, Miano already had spotted a problem on I-80 from about a mile away. “Here’s the crash,” he said while approaching the scene. “Looks like several vehicles, one down the embankment. There’s a tow truck there.” Getting closer, he banked and orbited for a better view, taking a quick look through a pair of binoculars.

The station’s trumpet fanfare announced that it was time for his first report, and he was on the air.

Pressing a button on the flight controls with one hand and holding the microphone attached to his headset with the other, Miano ran through a quick summary of what he had seen below. “I’m Joe Miano, looking at a crash on westbound 80 … a little slowing on Business 80 at E Street.” After a few seconds of airtime, Miano turned northeast toward Roseville and the snowy Sierra Nevada beyond.

Broadcasting traffic news while flying a plane is a lot harder than one might imagine, especially in bad weather. Although Miano makes it look effortless, he says it’s the radio work, not the flying, that loads him up.

Miano learned to fly decades ago and has logged more than 25,000 hours. A Cleveland kid, he graduated from Rutgers with a sociology degree and then was drafted into the Army. After that, he went to flight school on the GI Bill and signed up for the Air Force, which brought him to Sacramento. He spent 10 years flying everything from rescue helicopters to gigantic cargo planes. Not long after getting out of the service, Miano answered an ad for now-defunct radio station KGNR, which was looking for a traffic reporter.

He has a relaxed demeanor, and, though he loves to talk about what he does, it’s never in a show-off kind of way. Though he speaks casually in conversation, he changes to a quicker, more clipped speaking style on the air, when he has to cram details, directions and recommendations into the quick live updates he gives every 10 minutes. The reports have their own shorthand for stretches of freeway. The I-80 bypass through Natomas is “over the top,” the abandoned rail yards just north of downtown are the “locomotive works,” and the stretch of Business 80 that also includes highways 50 and 99 and runs between W and X streets is known simply as “the W-X.”

Because of his unique flying platform and years of observation, Miano knows how to read and anticipate the ebb and flow of cars on the city’s freeways as well as any traffic engineer.

He and KFBK’s other traffic reporter, Bill Eveland, both started calling in traffic reports from the sky above Sacramento in 1979, when traffic was relatively nonexistent and there wasn’t that much to report. “People considered it a joke almost, compared to San Francisco and Los Angeles,” Miano said. When he started flying, Miano recalled, he’d report less about the freeways and sometimes about accidents on small streets. “Our morning rush hour was almost like a half hour, from 7:30 to 8. But as the city grew, the need to do traffic reporting grew with it,” he said.

In recent years, as a booming economy has spurred job growth and new housing, the region’s roadways have become more like big-city freeways. The backups have covered longer periods of the morning and evening, and the traffic has stretched for longer distances, often up into the foothills and outlying areas, where it hadn’t been an issue before.

Though the economy cooled off, growth didn’t, and the view from above hasn’t been getting any better.

“It’s the expansion and the sprawl,” Miano said of the volume of cars that seem to fill every new lane. “The engineering works, but you reach certain capacities, and then it doesn’t.” The pilot has seen freeways that were once almost vacant fill up and then some. “Now we have westbound slowdowns in Roseville at night,” Miano said.

In addition to the usual controls, Joe Miano’s cockpit also boasts a GPS display (lower right).

Photo By Jill Wagner

Traffic counts reflect that increase. According to Caltrans, average daily traffic on I-80 at Madison was about 200,000 vehicles a day in 2001, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s up from 165,000 vehicles that passed that point during an average 24-hour span in 1991. Over the same period, traffic on Highway 50 at Watt Avenue increased from 146,000 to 166,000 vehicles per day.

At 3,000 feet—the altitude reserved for his and other traffic planes—Miano chugged along at about 90 miles per hour, fast enough to make his rounds yet slow enough to take a careful look. He starts his routine by flying a big racetrack-shaped loop around the downtown area, out to the eastern suburbs and back.

Far below, the red brake lights on I-80 started to glow. The bright color of a river of brake lights, reminiscent of phosphorescent dye injected into the bloodstream during a medical test, can be seen from miles away. At this point in the afternoon, the lights were only visible at a few stretches of freeway. Later, they would glow for miles, stretching out into the distance and burning like streams of neon.

“That’s a pretty good slowdown on 80, a little earlier than usual,” Miano said. It was just before 4:30 p.m. He asked Eveland, who was flying a similar circular pattern somewhere on the other side of the city, “Is there anything going on on the northeast side there?”

“It’s been like that most of the afternoon,” said Eveland, who starts and ends his flights earlier than Miano and had already taken a look.

“Still a heavy pattern westbound on 80,” Miano told his radio audience a minute later.

Miano receives KFBK on a car radio installed in the cockpit; he listens with the volume low in one side of the big, green earphones that block out the sound of the engine. In the other ear, he can hear Eveland, air-traffic control and a pair of California Highway Patrol officers who also fly above the rush-hour traffic and share information with Miano and Eveland. Miano jots down notes on a small, yellow notepad strapped to his thigh.

As he headed northeast, following I-80, Miano couldn’t see any explanation for the slowing, just abnormally heavy traffic. Miano said the traffic probably had been triggered by earlier accidents, maybe a stall that had been cleared a while before. He banked the plane to the right, heading south toward Highway 50.

In the distance, near Folsom Reservoir, tracts of light-colored new homes stood out against the older neighborhoods. Below, the lights began to glow in the sprawling parking lot at Sunrise Mall. East of Mather Airport, off of Zinfandel, the fresh dirt of more new lots stood out like a magnet for new development.

Highway 50 was starting to slow, and it wasn’t yet 5 p.m. Miano said it would be even heavier on his next pass. He turned again, banking to pull the plane around and follow Highway 50 back toward downtown.

The sun, orange now, slouched closer to the horizon and the blue outline of the coastal mountains. The setting sun reflected off the cars and turned the meandering Sacramento River dark orange. The incredible views, Miano conceded, are one of the great perks of the job. In an otherwise graying afternoon, the late-afternoon light illuminated the downtown buildings and bathed the Capitol dome and Tower Bridge in warm orange. As a mile-long freight train snaked across the American River, just north of the brown trees that line Midtown streets, the city itself seemed deserted, as if everyone had jumped on the freeways. Traffic was moving on the arteries, but the peak commute time was still to come.

The CHP air unit reported an accident on I-80. Flying that day were pilot John Nielsen and spotter Matt Causie, each from the Valley Division air unit in Auburn. The two officers are part of a team that patrols the region in planes and helicopters almost around the clock—but especially at commute hours, when they monitor traffic. Their plane’s blue strobe was visible in the distance, flashing in the darkening haze high above the Roseville rail yards.

More and more brake lights glowed on 80 as the average speed of the commute slowed. To the west, the sun was dark red, just starting to melt into the horizon.

Headlights and taillights illuminate Highway 50 as evening commuters head home.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

“Traffic is still heavy on 50, and it will be for the rest of the evening,” Miano told drivers below. On the next pass, the Capitol dome and Tower Bridge stood out in the dim light, now illuminated by their own spotlights. Miano saw westbound traffic slowing on the Yolo Causeway and pulled out his binoculars for a better look.

By 5:23 p.m., I-5 was clogged heading south out of downtown, and 50 had become a solid glow of lights in both directions. The freeways were reaching capacity.

The day of the half-hour rush hour, when I-5 was clear and slowdowns were rare on Business 80 and Highway 99, is a vague memory. And, as the city grows outward, new development sprouts on the city’s edge, increasing the number of commuters who depend on an aging web of freeways that’s probably as big as it’s going to get. All of that sets up an inevitable conflict between the model of development—unchanged since the first new freeways built in the 1950s and 1960s opened up new land for subdivisions—and the continuing practice of building more and more homes farther away from the urbanized area. Yet, no new freeways will be built. That, of course, means more and more commuters stuck in cars and listening to Miano.

The freeways stretching in every direction are the latest incarnation of Sacramento’s status as a transportation crossroads, first by river and then by rail. The web of freeways surrounding Sacramento came late, or later anyway, than it did to most American cities.

Though the country’s first limited-access, divided highways opened on the eve of World War II, and nationwide route maps had been sketched out by the late 1940s, most freeways didn’t start to take shape until 1956, when the Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed into law. The bill made possible what’s now a 45,000-mile network of interstate highways, the largest and costliest public-works project ever built.

During those postwar years, Sacramento grew fast and cheap, like other mid-size American cities, restricted in some ways by rivers and floodplains but guided in most ways by new highways and empty land 10 or 15 minutes from downtown.

Transportation always has guided the growth of the region, from the grid of streets that grew out from the first wharf along the Sacramento River to the railroads that helped create the small towns that quickly bloomed along the tracks leading in and out of Sacramento.

On a series of maps created by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the historic patterns of development trends are clearly visible.

In 1850, Sacramento was a speck along the river. By the turn of the century 50 years later, the city had grown to fill the grid and adjacent areas. Other small cities—Davis, Folsom and Marysville—surrounded it, arranged at regular intervals along the rail lines. The central city grew considerably by 1925, but by 1975, the explosion in growth had enlarged the small core city into a blob growing eastward along the two main freeway corridors. Sacramento’s main downtown freeways didn’t open until the late 1960s, and I-5 wasn’t completed until the early 1970s.

But plans adopted in the mid-1960s called for a much bigger network of freeways stretching from Lincoln through east Sacramento County to South Sacramento. Carmichael, for example, would have been a nexus of two freeways. Highway 143, as planned, would have started in the middle of Carmichael and then run directly south to link to Highway 99 in Elk Grove. At the north end of Highway 143 would have been Highway 244, an east-west link that was to continue the arc of the I-80 bypass from the split, through Carmichael, to connect to Highway 50 in Rancho Cordova. None of these was built, and the wide swaths of land preserved by the state were sold off and filled in with new homes.

Another airborne broadcaster who remembers the early days of freeway building and traffic reporting is KCRA helicopter pilot Dann Shively. Three decades ago, he recalled, Highway 50 ended at Watt Avenue, and I-5 was incomplete south of downtown.

After an eight-year hiatus from flying, Shively returned to traffic reporting in 2001. He said he was shocked at how “the tremendous growth of the ’90s really started to manifest itself here.” Shively said that over time, he could see the cycle—how the lack of freeways first stalled growth, making it hard to commute into the city, until new freeways and roads opened up outlying land for development, and the commute was eased. That is, until commuters from the new suburbs pushed the freeways to capacity. “It’s almost like a vicious circle,” he said.

Now, he said, the traffic is constant. “It starts a lot earlier and ends a lot later. And something insignificant can create a delay. You get someone off to the side, and it can cause a big backup.”

Dozens of Caltrans and CHP operators monitor regional freeways at the Traffic Management Center in Rancho Cordova.

Photo By Jill Wagner

From the air, Shively added, it’s easy to see the invisible lines where jurisdictions begin and end, where growth is allowed and where it’s not. Pointing to a map on the wall of his office, he traced the northern border of Sacramento County, near Roseville. From a helicopter, he said, it’s easy to see where growth in Sacramento County stops and where Placer County, which had a building moratorium in the area, starts.

Watching growth patterns from the air is nothing new. Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who bought a Southern California hamburger stand from a couple brothers named McDonald in the mid-1950s, helped build a fast-food empire by flying around the country in a small plane. From the air, Kroc scouted locations along the edges of new communities and looked for spots close to the new highways.

Today, environmentalists with a group called LightHawk use plane rides to show the effects of things like sprawl and deforestation in a way that can’t be observed from the ground. The group, founded in the late 1970s, is a nonprofit environmental organization, but it doesn’t lobby or organize. Instead, it is a loose network of volunteer pilots who take politicians, environmentalists, government officials, scientists and reporters up in planes to give them a new perspective on the landscape.

It’s a strange contrast that the architects of sprawl and those trying to keep it in check both use aerial platforms in their efforts, along with traffic reporters like Miano, who chronicle the results every day to an appreciative audience stuck in cars below.

At 5:37 p.m., Miano continued to survey the commute while making a sweeping turn over Land Park. Looking south at I-5, Miano said things looked relatively good but wouldn’t for long. The plane wiggled in the turbulence of occasional wind gusts, but Miano’s focus was on the trip below.

A minor accident had snarled the outbound commute on 50. The headlights bunched up around Watt Avenue. Even though the accident already had been cleared, the obstruction happened at a time when the roadway was at capacity. The result, which was easy to spot from the air, was that the brief interruption had amplified itself as traffic backed up and rippled backward through the lanes. “All those vehicles are gone, but the damage is done now,” Miano said. “It’s too extensive for it to recover.”

CHP spotter Causie radioed Miano and Eveland about an accident in Natomas. A passenger had been partly ejected from a vehicle. Eveland said he was nearby and could take a quick look to see how the accident affected traffic.

To the east, the twin red and white streaks of I-80 and Highway 50 were the most visible features on the darkening landscape. Between the two freeways, the American River cut a swath of darkness through the city, interrupted at just a few places by busy crossings—Howe, Watt, Sunrise and Hazel—that were thick with headlights.

From Miano’s perspective, he said, it’s easy to see the changes in traffic patterns in big growth areas like Natomas, Roseville and Elk Grove. As commuters get new freeway lanes, the added capacity helps, but it doesn’t last. After those improvements are made, he added, new commuters from new homes will soak up the added capacity until traffic is back to full capacity.

In North Natomas, new growth looked like a spastic, glowing checkerboard of development—square tracts of new homes lit by orange streetlights, all of them surrounded by dark, undeveloped land. In the middle of these, Arco Arena shone brightly, the surrounding parking lots glowing under bright lights.

To the south, I-5 was jammed with stop-and-go traffic, and the pattern was a little worse than normal.

“The earliness of it is unusual. That’s been a recent change in the last year or two,” Miano said, pointing to the new homes in the Elk Grove and Laguna areas that have dumped more commuters onto I-5 and Highway 99.

Elk Grove twinkled in the distance. Next to it, Laguna West looked like a peninsula of light, reaching out into the darkness that surrounds it on three sides. It reached out just far enough to touch the long, perfectly straight line of headlights on I-5.

At the Traffic Management Center, Supervisor Mark Heiman takes a quick look at the weather reports.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Miano said this stretch of I-5, as new subdivisions have opened in Elk Grove, has been one of the most significant new slowdowns in the last couple of years.

Elsewhere, two stretches of I-80, the Yolo Causeway to the west and through Roseville to the east, are now regularly at traffic levels rarely experienced before. “These appear to be entrenched now and part of our daily commute, and we can only expect it to get worse. The only time we’d see that kind of slowdown in Roseville or maybe in West Sac heading to the causeway was at the end of a three- or four-day weekend,” Miano said.

New tracts came into view in the Southport area of West Sacramento. The clusters of new development looked absurdly out of place, surrounded by open fields in every direction but connected to the rest of the world by thin strips of asphalt lined by colorful flags and banners announcing new homes. Inside the square tracts, the red and gray roofs of new houses wrapped themselves around cul-de-sacs, all of them surrounded by a cream-colored wall. New tracts like this were ready to go in nearby. The light brown color of freshly graded dirt lots contrasted with the brand new asphalt of fresh streets and cul-de-sacs to nowhere.

Miano went back on the air, reporting that both I-5 and Highway 99 were busy southbound to about Florin Road. He banked the wings as he talked to get a better view of the Pioneer Bridge and adjacent interchange at I-5.

What had started as a lighter-than-average afternoon commute wasn’t looking so good anymore.

To the west, two other islands of light, Davis and Woodland, glowed, connected to the rest of the world only by thin lines of light across dark fields. The tiny dots of headlights and taillights now looked like capillaries under a microscope, feeding red lights in and sending white ones back out. The center of the city, where lights glowed in tall buildings, looked like the heart. The arteries and veins glowed red on the surrounding freeways.

Monitoring the flow of these veins has become a full-time job for local transportation officials. Caltrans monitors the pulse of traffic all over the region from a nondescript Rancho Cordova office building. The Regional Transportation Management Center, or TMC, is one of eight facilities like it statewide where Caltrans and CHP can monitor roads remotely and coordinate quick responses to everything from stalled cars to snowstorms. Inside is a cavernous, dimly lit communications center with dozens of computer workstations and live images of traffic projected onto huge screens. In addition to live traffic cameras, employees also monitor fog sensors, weather stations and detectors in freeways that can tell the speed and volume of passing traffic.

At the various desks, CHP dispatchers take reports from patrol units, aircraft and cellular 911 callers to dispatch officers and Caltrans crews to whatever comes up. From other workstations, Caltrans employees control changeable message signs, chain requirements, tow trucks, ramp meters and advisory radio stations. The room is quiet except for the low murmur of voices talking on radios and phones and fingers clicking on keyboards. The TMC also works with other jurisdictions to change signal timing on surface streets that are suddenly flooded by freeway traffic when there’s an accident. The $8 million facility exists, for the most part, to find traffic problems quickly and handle them before they can ruin a commute, while also getting word to the public so that commuters don’t make the problem worse. Clearing accidents quickly is especially important because an accident that blocks a freeway for just a few minutes can mean hours of lingering congestion that overflows onto interchanges, other freeways and surface streets.

TMC supervisor Mark Heiman said the facility is important because, though the region is growing, the state can’t afford to keep building new freeways and widening old ones. That means Caltrans has to squeeze more capacity out of the freeways it already has by managing them better.

At the Air Ops office at Auburn Municipal Airport, Causie and Nielsen said their job also is to keep things moving. Like TMC staffers, they concentrate on finding accidents, figuring out what’s going on and helping ground units to clear the roadway. The unit flies a pair of new Cessna planes outfitted with the same kinds of radar and all-weather capabilities as bigger commercial aircraft have. The planes are equipped with high-tech GPS displays up front and several low-tech Thomas Guides stacked in the back seat.

From the air, Causie coordinates with ground units while watching traffic through a pair of powerful, high-tech binoculars. The next step, Causie said, will be installing cameras on CHP aircraft and then beaming the feed down to the TMC or ground units.

Right now, though, if he’s far from an incident, Causie said he’s also confident calling Miano or Eveland on the radio to get a report from them. “I can tell my dispatch as if I’m looking at it and get a jump. Bill and Joe have been here so long that they know every nook and cranny.”

Just a few years ago, the air unit focused mostly on catching speeders and on the occasional manhunt or search-and-rescue flight. But the unit’s role has evolved recently into one mostly focused on watching traffic and handling problems quickly so that they don’t turn into major backups.

Traffic flows smoothly on I-5 just before the afternoon rush hour.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“It happens very quickly,” Causie said. “In a few minutes, you can see it back through an interchange.”

“And when you start getting backups into an interchange,” Nielsen added, “you’re asking for more accidents.”

The biggest change they’ve seen in recent years is around the I-80 and Highway 65 interchange. “The traffic’s getting worse and worse,” Causie said. “If you look at the urban sprawl, you can see it. You can see Roseville and Rocklin and Lincoln becoming one city. And the freeways are pretty much the same size they’ve been for the last 25 years.”

No new freeways are planned, except for a few miles of roadway that are under construction around the city of Lincoln. That makes the TMC increasingly important as the region grows.

To get a better idea of how the region will look in the future, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments has been preparing its Base Case Future Scenario. The effort is a change of gears for the regional transportation-planning agency. For years, the elected city and county leaders who make up its board declined to address land-use issues while making policy for transit and roads. That’s changing now. The three-year Base Case project revolves around a projection of how new roads, homes and residents will make the region look in 25 and 50 years if it follows the same transportation and land-use trends it does today.

Planners used specialized computer programs to build a map of the six-county region that showed how new growth would gobble up vacant land. The map synthesizes aerial photos, parcel maps and general plans covering the last four years. The end product looks almost comical, with low-density suburbs stretching halfway to Lake Tahoe.

SACOG’s Gordon Gary said planners can use the trends to forecast where new growth will occur and how much traffic it will create. Even though he worked on the project, Gary said the amount of sprawl the effort projected still surprised him.

If the question is whether development follows roads or vice versa, Gary said, “the short answer is yes.”

SACOG also has been taking aerial photos every couple of years. “You can see where development occurs, what the land change is,” Gary said.

SACOG unveiled the Base Case Future Scenario in October at a daylong workshop with hundreds of local government officials. Few local leaders liked the vision of exploding sprawl they saw presented that day. The consensus, Gary said, was that “there has to be something else.”

At 5:57 p.m., it was totally dark, and the traffic had thickened. In the darkness, the patterns of lights made it easy to see backups miles away, many of which were on stretches of freeway that scarcely slowed a few years ago if at all.

Miano passed over the split, where I-80 connects to Business 80 just south of McClellan Field’s long, crisscrossed runways. Eastbound traffic had totally stopped on I-80, backing up both freeways behind an accident and leaving the freeway empty and dark in front of it. The CHP aircrew reported that an injury accident was being cleared, and Miano passed on the info in his report a few minutes later.

CHP reported another accident blocking eastbound Business 80 at the Marconi curve. Here, too, the freeway in front of the crash scene was dark, while the colorful revolving lights of police and emergency crews punctuated the front of the red cluster of brake lights. A CHP cruiser pushed one of the disabled cars to the shoulder, and red lights started to leak slowly around the left side of the crash.

A few minutes later, Business 80 was at a standstill coming out of the curve and all the way through the elevated section on the east edge of the grid. And the backup was growing quickly, starting to plug up the Highway 50 interchange.

“You never know what to expect,” Miano said. “We’ve had more than our fair share of accidents today. It just amazes me. You expect a lighter commute, and it just goes crazy on you.”

It quickly went from bad to worse. The CHP pilots came up on the radio again, this time reporting two more accidents—one on the westbound W-X at 10th Street and another on Business 80 somewhere in the backup from the earlier crash up ahead in the Marconi curve.

Minutes later, Miano was overhead. Thousands of commuters were stopped in their attempts to get home. Red streams of brake lights indicated a mile-long backup that overflowed onto surrounding surface streets near both freeways. On the W-X, CHP cruisers already were on the scene, and the CHP plane was orbiting, its blue strobe blinking brightly. Miano made contact on the radio to say he could see them, and then he pulled back on the controls to climb for a few hundred feet of vertical separation. The CHP aircrew said all four lanes were blocked by the four cars involved, some of which had spun sideways. The freeway was totally empty in front of the accident, but brake lights glowed brightly for miles behind it.

“We’re still trying to put things back together again on the evening commute,” Miano said in his next broadcast, relaying news of the two crashes.

Miano neared the end of his flight a few minutes later and took one last look at I-80 through Natomas, which flowed smoothly. He thanked Causie and Nielsen, checked the winds, which had subsided considerably to a relatively mellow 7 knots out of the north, and idled the throttle to start gliding toward Rio Linda. Descending through 1,000 feet, Miano gave his last report at 6:26 p.m. But around the city, on the elevated downtown freeways and long, straight stretches to the suburbs, the bright red glow of brake lights continued to flow like lava through the dingy orange darkness of the evening.