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Will $40 Million Be Enough to Stave off Bay Area Traffic Congestion?

Bay Area traffic officials will introduce a suite of short-term traffic-easing solutions including more carpool lanes, increased ferry and bus service, and expanded commuter parking lots.

by Erin Baldassari, East Bay Times / July 28, 2016

(TNS) -- With buses, BART, ferries and travel lanes all clogged along the Bay Bridge corridor, Bay Area transportation officials are hoping a $40 million suite of programs, approved Wednesday, can offer commuters some short-term relief.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's plan focuses on solutions that can begin serving commuters within the next several years -- everything from double-decker buses and designated carpool pickup areas, to more ferry service and bus and high-occupany vehicle-only lanes approaching the bridge, to better HOV enforcement technology and more commuter parking lots.

But regional transportation planners say significant increases in capacity won't come without serious investments in additional infrastructure -- the largest and most complicated of which could be a second transbay rail crossing.

"We're trying to do some quick and easy things that we know are effective, and we want to make that permanent," said Randy Rentschler, MTC's director of legislation and public affairs. "We have a real proposal to use real money to help people on that very congested corridor."

Every weekday, more than a quarter of a million people cross the Bay Bridge, what regional leaders call the single most important transportation artery in the region, pumping hundreds of thousands of people straight into the heart of the Bay Area's economy.

It's also one of the most congested corridors in the Bay Area and, if left unchecked, could seriously hamper prospects for sustained growth, said Michael Cunningham, the Bay Area Council's senior vice president of public policy.

Company executives are keenly aware of this economic Achilles' heel, and while Cunningham said he's seen the Bay Area go through several peaks and troughs, never before has anxiety over worsening congestion been more acute.

It's already commonplace for commuters to plan their lives around Bay Bridge congestion. Take Oakland resident Don Jerabek, who says he crosses the bridge around 5:15 a.m. every day to beat the morning rush.

"I get up earlier and go to bed sooner, but I pick up the 35 to 40 minutes sitting in traffic," Jerabek said. "So, I just adjusted my personal life around the bridge, but I don't have kids. For someone who has kids, it's a whole different situation."

Still, Jerabek said he looks at the number of cranes going up in San Francisco, and it makes him nervous about his future commute prospects. Between 2010 and 2014, jobs in San Francisco grew by 25 percent, and 41 percent of downtown San Francisco's estimated 353,000 employees in 2013 were commuting from the East Bay, according to the MTC. That growth is expected to continue.

Transit ridership, which includes BART, bus and ferry service, increased 42 percent between 2010 and 2014, though bus and ferry officials say they have yet to satisfy demand.

Kevin Connolly, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority's manager of planning and development, said the ferry agency recorded around 10,000 riders per day in June, a 30 percent increase over June last year, the agency's previous record.

The MTC is spending $2.5 million so WETA can maintain its more frequent summer service in Alameda, Oakland and Vallejo all year round, though Connolly cautioned the money will only last through 2017. After that, if nothing else happens, the agency will have to cut back its newly expanded service, he said.

"We have a long-term problem in that we need to have more service and we need to have the operating money to do that," Connolly said.

There's not much BART can do to add capacity in the short term, said Ellen Smith, its manager of strategic planning. So, most of MTC's short-term solutions focus on adding capacity on buses and ferries and making it easier for buses to get through the toll plaza.

The agency is allocating $12.2 million to help AC Transit and WestCAT purchase seven double-decker buses, which WestCAT General Manager Charles Anderson said will add more than 20 seats on each bus, a roughly 40 percent increase.

Some of that funding will also pay for a one-year pilot program for increased service along AC Transit's busiest transbay routes, said AC Transit spokesman Robert Lyles.

The MTC will also contribute $7 million to convert the shoulder of West Grand Avenue in Oakland to a high-occupancy vehicle and bus-only lane as it approaches the Bay Bridge, which Lyles said will save time and make the travel times more reliable for transbay bus riders. Another $9 million will fund an HOV enforcement pilot program at Sterling Street and convert an HOV lane into an express lane.

There's also $3.5 million to establish commuter parking and casual carpooling lots, which Rentschler said is one of the less-explored options for relieving congestion in the corridor.

"All of those empty seats on the bridge are a big deal," he said. "How society can match drivers and riders is a very promising thing for the future."

The increased ferry service is set to begin this fall, Connolly said, and the new double-decker buses will be in service at the end of 2017 or early 2018, Lyles said. Rentschler said work on the HOV lanes, carpooling lots and other improvements are expected to go into service within the next 12 to 18 months.

BART carries the bulk of all transit passengers crossing the bay every weekday: 86 percent in 2014, according to the MTC. To increase its capacity, it needs more train cars, an upgraded train control system and upgraded traction power, Smith said. A $3.5 billion BART bond measure is set to go before voters in November.

But transportation planners say all of those improvements could be for naught if an unexpected mechanical failure -- such as the yet-to-be-solved electrical surge mystery that knocked train cars out of service earlier this year -- or a major natural disaster renders BART service across the Transbay Tube inoperable.

A white paper published earlier this year by urban planning nonprofit SPUR calls for a second transbay rail crossing to increase capacity across the bay, improve BART's reliability and strengthen the region's resiliency. Co-author and transportation policy director Ratna Amin said it's worrisome that there is still no plan to study particular crossing routes or a decision-making body to coordinate those efforts.

Cunningham said it's critical to begin the conversation now: "If we do what we typically do, which is wait until the crisis is staring us in the face and then start looking for a solution, not only will we not have the project when we need it, but I worry deeply about the ability of the Bay Area economy to sustain itself."

©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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