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Roadway for a Cause

By: Bill Higgins with Caila Pedroncelli on Sep 30, 2019
Portrait of James Dean

Today (September 30) marks 64 years since James Dean was killed in a tragic car accident.  

But now, finally, the infamous Cholame Junction of State Highways 41 and 46, where the accident occurred, is going to be fixed. And the credit goes to the Legislature for adopting SB 1-- the gas tax and vehicle fee increase adopted to address the state's backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects. The lonely stretch of highway in San Luis Obispo County remains treacherous 64 years after the actor's death. The intersection is shaped like a "Y," which encourages motorists to navigate through at faster, unsafe speeds. Locals call the area "Blood Alley" because it suffers three times the number of fatalities as the state average.  In 2017, at least seven motorists died in the area despite the installation of rumble strips by Caltrans and stepped up speed enforcement by the California Highway Patrol.

Back in 1955, James Dean was driving in his Porsche Spyder named "Little Bastard." He was traveling with his mechanic to a car race in Salinas. The movie East of Eden had already appeared in theaters and Rebel Without A Cause would screen a month later. They were traveling west on Highway 466 (now Highway 46) in the early evening.  As they approached the junction with Highway 41, a large Ford sedan heading east turned left to head toward Fresno on Highway 41.  The driver of the sedan did not see Dean and they collided nearly head on. Witnesses report that the Porsche Spyder "cartwheeled" two or three times before coming to rest in the gully at the side of the road.

James Dean died from severe internal injuries and a broken neck. He was 24 years old. There is a lot of conflicting information and conjecture about how the accident happened and whether Dean was driving too fast (an more recent an authoritative documentary concludes that he wasn't). But an underlying factor to his untimely death was simply poor road design.  

Today, the intersection is officially named the James Dean Memorial Junction. 

Now, the unsafe design will finally be fixed. SB 1 allowed the state to program (commit) nearly $200 million to redesign the interchange. Construction should begin in 2021. The improvements include widening of State Route 46 and a grade separation (bridge) that will eliminate the need for northbound traffic on Highway 41 to make the left turn across Highway 46. An additional benefit is that it will also make it easier for trucks to operate in the area because Highways 41 and 46 are important freight corridors in the central part of the state. 

Of course, when the Legislature passed SB 1, they were not thinking specifically of James Dean. Their motivation was to make existing roads safer and more efficient for cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians and cyclists.  As a result, projects ranging from pedestrian improvements on Main Street to large highway safety projects that would otherwise still be on the drawing board are now proceeding. The backlog of such projects had been so large that it was difficult for many very significant projects to get programmed. This is particularly true in counties--like San Luis Obispo--that do not have a local sales tax that allows them to use locally-generated dollars to support projects.  

So without SB 1, it might have taken another 64 years to get the Cholame junction fixed.   

James Dean would have been 88 this year.  


cholame overpass.jpg
A diagram shows how the deadly interchange would be redesigned and improved. 

 Read: SLOCOG's press release credits SB1 for providing the funding that allowed the CTC's approval of $197 million for the project.

SLOCOG project summary.