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Terry Waugh, left, and Vincent DuPuys watch as an excavator lifts a drain pipe out of the ground along northbound Highway 101 south of Laetitia Winery. Work at night has started on a concrete barrier to separate the lanes between the Los Berros Road undercrossing in Nipomo and the Traffic Way undercrossing in Arroyo Grande.

Construction is under way on a median barrier designed to prevent head-on collisions and plunges into deep ravines along a 5-mile stretch of Highway 101 south of Arroyo Grande.

The $2.8 million barrier will run from the Los Berros Road undercrossing near Nipomo to the undercrossing where vehicles enter southbound Highway 101 from Traffic Way.

All but one of the at-grade highway crossings through that stretch will remain open, said Jim Shivers, a public information officer for Caltrans District 5.

But one crossing that serves a private driveway just south of El Campo will be blocked by the barrier, Shivers said.

Caltrans initiated the project in response to a rising number of traffic collisions at the at-grade highway crossings.

But the barrier is also designed to prevent vehicles from crossing the median into oncoming traffic or plunging into ravines between the north- and southbound lanes.

As initially proposed, the barrier would have blocked cross traffic at all of the highway crossings, including one at Laetitia Vineyard Drive.

But it was particularly aimed at closing the El Campo Road crossing, where the accident rate had been steadily climbing.

The crash frequency at El Campo Road rose from three in 1998 to 10 in 2008, according to Caltrans statistics released in 2010.

At that time, a total of 185 collisions resulting in three fatalities and 101 injuries had been reported along the five-mile stretch of highway.

But residents along El Campo Road, the operators of Laetitia Vineyard & Winery and Arroyo Grande city officials objected to closing those two crossings.

People living along El Campo Road and operators of Laetitia Vineyard & Winery said blocking those intersections would require residents and winery visitors and workers to drive miles out of their way.

Arroyo Grande officials said the closures also would send more traffic through the city as drivers sought to turn around.

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As a result, Caltrans agreed to add flashing yellow lights to cross-traffic warning signs and to leave all but one of the crossings open.

It appears the warning beacons may have helped, based on Caltrans’ recent crash statistics.

Shivers said in the seven months prior to installing the beacons, seven multiple-vehicle crashes were reported along the five-mile stretch.

In the first seven months after they were installed, only one multiple-vehicle crash has occurred.

“So that’s a lot better with the beacons up,” Shivers said. “But it should be noted a seven-month sample is not the typical period we survey.

“Usually, we look at a three-year period, but since we don’t have that period since they were installed, we have to go with the seven months.”

The barrier is being constructed of solid concrete rather than the tri-rail used in other areas along the freeway, said Susana Cruz, another Caltrans District 5 public information officer.

“It will be a hard barrier,” she said. “That’s the best kind to protect drivers from crossing” the median.

Crews from CalPortland Construction in Santa Maria started work on the barrier Aug. 28 and are expected to finish around the end of February, weather permitting, Cruz said.

“Fortunately, the work will be done at night,” she added, noting that will have the least impact on traffic.

Alternating lane closures in both directions are expected between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Fridays, but delays are not expected to exceed 10 minutes.

Caltrans is advising motorists to slow down as they approach the construction zone and watch for workers along the highway.

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