There’s no silver bullet to resolving the Bay Area’s transportation challenges that are compounded by a geographically dispersed region facing a boom in jobs and a lack of housing. But these tough questions are issues commuters and the San Mateo County Transit District are attempting to broach as they look to ease traffic woes.
SamTrans last week released a full draft of its Dumbarton Corridor Study, a 267-page document compiled after nearly 18 months of reviewing the southern east-west Bay crossing. The report offers numerous short- and long-term options for nearly every mode from bicyclists to a proposed new transbay rail system. But one proposal posing an interesting debate relates to creating managed lanes on the Highway 84 car bridge.
Although very preliminary, SamTrans is looking at an option to potentially worsen congestion for solo drivers as a way to get more people to ride the bus.
“At the end of the day, the question is what are we trying to do?” said April Chan, chief officer of planning and grants with the Transportation Authority. “Originally when we initiated the study, it is ‘how can we increase transit mode shift, have more folks go to transit.’”
Transit agencies across the Bay Area are turning to managed lanes — which sometimes includes the controversial prospect of taking away an existing general purpose lane — as a way to curb solo drivers. The draft Dumbarton study offers two design options for managed lanes, which are typically open to carpoolers, buses and those willing to pay a toll.
One proposal for the six-lane Highway 84 car bridge is to convert an existing lane in each direction to a managed lane. That option is expected to exacerbate congestion for drivers but result in a 5 percent increase in those riding the bus or private shuttles, according to the study.
The other option draws on the fact that nearly 80 percent of congestion is one directional, with morning commuters heading west to the job-rich Peninsula then returning to their East Bay homes in the evenings. The second alternative would create a single reversible managed lane down the center of the highway, similar to the Golden Gate Bridge. That new reversible lane would convert just one existing general purpose lane, according to the study.
While both options are relatively similar in cost, SamTrans’ grading scale prioritizing bus and public transit ridership has the two-lane option as the preferred alternative even though it could lengthen travel times for solo drivers.
But hailing mass transit often isn’t convenient for those who don’t live or work near bus stops or the rail line. While managed lanes might further disadvantage solo drivers who don’t want to pay additional tolls, Chan and SamTrans spokesman Dan Lieberman noted correlated benefits.
Even if “taking transit isn’t an option for one person, the fact that there’s transit reduces cars on the road for everybody,” Lieberman said.
Labeled long-term 2040 options, SamTrans projects managed lanes could increase transit ridership by nearly 10 fold from 2013 levels. The reversible lane option is expected to draw 25,100 riders, while a managed lane in each direction is expected to result in 26,400 users, according to the study.
The upfront costs and ongoing maintenance are nearly equal with either managed lane project toping $1 billion, according to the study.
The suggestion is far from a done deal, as Caltrans, not SamTrans, has authority over the bridge; plus, there’s currently no dedicated funding for improvements. Still, a variety of sources could become available such as state funding from gas tax hikes, a proposed countywide sales tax, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s interest in asking voters to raise bridge tolls.
In the meantime, the Dumbarton study — which also includes options such increasing express bus service, creating bike paths and rehabbing the unused rail bridge — provides a starting point on which to hold discussions with stakeholders, Chan said.
Weighing in on drivers’ commute
SamTrans is now the process of seeking public input on the study before returning to its board of directors for comment and finalizing the report
Charles Stone, vice chair of the SamTrans board and Belmont mayor, said he’ll reserve judgment on a preferred managed lane option until more input is gathered. But his priorities include increasing throughput by promoting mass transit and addressing environmental concerns, he said.
“We definitely want to help traffic congestion where we can and we want to be equitable in the way we do it,” Stone said. “Getting people on public transit in a way that disrupts traffic congestion has to be a fundamental part of our mission.”
County Supervisor Dave Pine, who also sits on the SamTrans board, agreed options that move the most people should be prioritized, but added he’ll be also be weighing alternatives based on cost and speed of implementation.
“My intuition would be that a reversible lane might be something we could do quicker, it might cost less and might be more of a compromised approach,” Pine said, while adding there’s still more data to consider.
“The Dumbarton Corridor Study will be extremely helpful to policy makers in that it attempts to bring a very analytical approach to the complicated question of how to improve transportation across the corridor.”
The challenges of growth
But one concept that isn’t a solution — both in terms of space constraints and effectiveness — is simply widening highways, Pine said. Squeezing in managed lanes, however, is a possibility being considered elsewhere as well.
Currently, San Mateo County transit officials are also looking at adding managed lanes along the Highway 101 stretch from the Santa Clara border to Interstate 380.
Supervisor Warren Slocum, whose District 4 includes San Mateo County’s segment of the Dumbarton corridor, said it’s imperative to ensure there’s a coordinated effort.
“There are many places in the Bay Area where there are managed lanes,” Slocum said. “It’s important that the bridge portion, as well as Highway 101 from San Francisco to Santa Clara, is integrated … and works seamlessly for travelers.”
With many in his district overwhelming affected by commuter traffic, Slocum said it’s critical to engage employers in alternate transit solutions as well.
Menlo Park-headquartered Facebook, which funded the $1.2 million Dumbarton study, is expected to bring thousands of new workers, as are other major employers such as Stanford and Genentech. The proposed managed lanes, which are just one portion of the overall study, would also be open to company shuttles that have become more prevalent amongst large employers.
An important component of the study will be coordinating transit stops at major job centers on the Peninsula and aligning schedules with other modes like Caltrain to the west and Altamont Corridor Express as well as BART to the east. Crossing the bridge currently is the Dumbarton Express, a bus service with regional partner agencies including SamTrans.
While officials are hopeful a more immediate $51 million proposal to enhance express bus service on Dumbarton by 2020 can help address congestion, they note success will ultimately depend on making mass transit more desirable than the automobile.
“The simple fact of the matter is we do not have in the Bay Area the type of public transit to make it easy for people to give up their cars,” Stone said. “My main goal is to get people riding public transit and I recognize that the other side of that bargain is providing them the type of reliable, clean, comfortable, attractive transit options that get them out of their car.”
The Dumbarton Corridor Study will be reviewed at several upcoming public meetings Aug 22, 24 and Sept. 12 before it returns to the SamTrans board later this year. Visit samtrans.com for more information.