A clue to how the new Interstate 80 transportation project in the East Bay differs from typical freeway-improvement efforts could be seen at the recent ground-breaking ceremony, said Janet Abelson, chair of the West Contra Costa County Transportation Advisory Committee.
"Usually when they do a groundbreaking they use shovels," Abelson reported to the El Cerrito City Council last week. (Abelson is also a member of the El Cerrito council.)
"But this is technology, so instead of the dirt and the shovels, we had electrical cords we plugged in to signify that you can in fact reduce traffic congestion without putting in a lot of lanes of the highway."
The $80-million plan – called the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility project – will rely on new electronic road signs on the freeway in the East Bay and stoplights added to 40 on-ramps. It will also include coordination of stoplights on side streets and new signs on those streets meant to efficiently reroute traffic off the freeway and back on again to bypass traffic-blocking incidents on the freeway.
The project is intended to address one of the most congested freeways not just in the Bay Area but in the nation – the 19.5-mile stretch between the Bay Bridge maze and the Carquinez Bridge. Two parts of that stretch are in the top 20 most congested freeway segments in the United States, according the latest ranking by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Motorists on the freeway will see new electronic signs above the freeway lanes, like those currently marking Fastrak and Cash lanes approaching the toll booths to the Bay Bridge. But the new signs will carry changing messages, such as reduce-speed advisories, or symbols, such as arrows or red X's, to warn of blocked lanes ahead.
And the freeway shoulders will see electronic display boards to advise motorists of faster alternative routes to given destinations under the current traffic conditions.
A major element of the plan are the stoplights for 40 on-ramps, which will operate at varying intervals to maintain a smoother flow on the freeway, project sponsors say. If traffic on the ramp begins to back up and threaten to block side streets, the plan calls for the lights to be sped up or kept on green. Wires in the pavement will be used to monitor traffic back-up.
A few ramps will be widened to allow bus lanes that will permit buses to bypass the stoplights.
San Pablo Avenue, the main side road that runs along the freeway, will also get new electronic signs, sometimes called "Trailblazer signs," to guide motorists around accidents or other incidents clogging the freeway. The signs will guide drivers back to an on-ramp past the blockage.
The timing of stoplights on San Pablo and on other arterial roads that connect to I-80 will adjust to help increase the flow of traffic.
The system will also have video cameras so that Caltrans and local agencies can monitor real-time traffic conditions and respond in a coordinated manner, according to the project plan.
The project timeline calls for most of the work to be completed by mid-2014, with the remainder finished a year later.
Sponsors and funding
The project is sponsored by Caltrans, with implementation overseen by the Alameda County Transportation Commission. It's a cooperative effort by nine cities along the corridor (Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Hercules, Oakland, Pinole, Richmond and San Pablo) and several other agenices, including the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee, AC Transit and WestCAT.
The chief funding is $66 million from Proposition 1B, a transportation bond passed by voters in 2006, according to Caltrans. Another $5 million comes from the Measure J half-cent sales tax in Contra Costa County, and about $2.8 million comes from the Measure B half-cent sales tax in Alameda County.
Public open houses about the project were held in various localities earlier this year and last year, including one in Richmond in February. The "groundbreaking" ceremony was held Oct. 29 in Emeryville.
"It'll be smart technology," said Abelson, who serves also as vice chair of the Contra Costa. "... I think you'll really enjoy it and I especially think you'll enjoy the reduction in congestion."