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Big I-80 Freeway Project – Few Shovels Needed

In the ground-breaking for one of the East Bay's major transportation projects – the Interstate 80 Integrated Corridor Mobility project – there were no shovels. Not much dirt will be moved for $80 million in electronic signs and other tech add-ons.

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.

The project is "at the forefront of technology applied to transportation," says a recent news release from the Alameda County Transportation Commission.

Major elements

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 will be 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 threatens 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 direct 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 be adjustable to help increase the flow of traffic.

The system will also have video cameras so that Caltrans, California Highway Patrol 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 Transportation Authority. "... I think you'll really enjoy it and I especially think you'll enjoy the reduction in congestion."

Caryl O'Keefe November 27, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Does anyone know, with this system of info about lane conditions ahead, when is it optimal for drivers to change hwy lanes away from a lane that is slow or blocked ahead? Change right away, or wait until close to the slowdown/blockage point?
Kathy A. November 27, 2012 at 06:52 PM
it is better to know about a blocked lane well in advance, and to change before things get crowded at the end. (there will be jerks, who will zoom down the lane that everyone else is vacating, then try horning into the next lane. the world is safer with fewer jerks.)
Winifred Owen November 27, 2012 at 06:59 PM
I wonder if these will be "real time" - i.e., immediately clearing the sign when a lane is no longer blocked or, conversely, lighting up a sign immediately upon blockage. Or will there be such a significant lag time that this system becomes a very expensive and useless joke. (Similar to so-called traffic reports on the radio, where it will indicate a wreck blocking a lane on 80 at Ashby with a mile-long backup, and you're breezing by that very spot at the moment - with nary a problem in sight. Or caught in gridlock at the BB toll plaza while the traffic reporter on the radio announces that things are moving smoothly through the toll gates with no delays. Sigh.)
Caryl O'Keefe November 28, 2012 at 04:49 PM
For real time information, it seems like wires in the pavement will be at the newly-signaled access ramps only. Maybe info from the hwy cameras will be better monitored about traffic on the hwy. Assuming there is real time information about blocked lanes for drivers, the ten responses on this link were quite interesting about merging in congested traffic: http://www.howwedrive.com/2010/08/31/the-zipper-merge-and-civil-society/
Kathy C November 29, 2012 at 08:50 AM
What about a BART extention to Rodeo to get more cars off the road?

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