Earlier this year, Mike addressed a retired group of church members with a wide-ranging discussion of traffic issues.
In a previous column, I noted that Caltrans was in the process of installing roundabouts in Meyers at the intersection of Highway 50 and Highway 88 and already had installed a few along Highway 28 on the north side of Lake Tahoe.
What Mike explained is that although Caltrans is responsible for the interstate highways, local governments (cities or counties) are responsible for the interchanges. He's considering changes at Interstate 680 and Sunol Boulevard, an area that's jammed with southbound commuters weekday mornings.
As he looks at options to help traffic move better (you can see new signage in the lanes), one Caltrans mandate is that roundabouts must be considered. They are not mandated, but must be considered in the planning process. Caltrans must approve any changes to interchanges. That's not going to be an issue in Pleasanton because he said City Manager Nelson Fialho hates roundabouts.
I don't oppose them quite that much -- in fact, there are places where they can move traffic very efficiently such as in Bend, Oregon on the main route to the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. The flip side is the roundabouts on Valley Avenue that effectively slow traffic through the residential areas, but are an unnecessary pain in the rear elsewhere on the same street.
Speaking of unnecessary, Caltrans is spending millions to install ramp metering lights on the northbound ramp to I-680 at Sunol Boulevard. Presumably some engineer decided that because metering is necessary elsewhere on I-680 through Pleasanton, that it should be on this ramp. The work involves excavating a hillside and then installing a concrete retaining wall at one end and filling in a ravine so there can be two lanes for the onramp (a carpool lane plus a regular travel lane).
In short, it's not an easy project of simply adding a lane to install the metering lights. I reached out to Caltrans on multiple occasions for more information and neither emails nor a phone call were returned.
Mike also shared how Caltrans, barring a major policy change, will not allow any more general freeway lanes to be built. They all must be express lanes. Normal lanes will move 2,000 cars per hour. Diamond lanes (high-occupancy vehicle lanes) can accommodate 1,000 cars with two or more passengers and move freely. He noted that the demand pricing on I-580 eastbound was originally set at a maximum of $9.75 for single-passenger vehicles -- it's now gone as high as $13.
Traveling at commute hours twice this week, we saw $9.75 charges for single-passenger vehicles seeking to escape congestion. We saw first-hand how ugly it can be from Mission Boulevard to Highway 84 on the afternoon commute. We snuck out for a delightful day of golf in Hollister and cruised back up 101 and on 680 with minimal delays until we got to a complete stop at Mission Boulevard. With nobody in the way, it's about less than 20 minutes home -- Google Maps said it would take 51 minutes and was sadly accurate.
The good news is that contractors are making good progress with adding northbound express lanes on I-680 from Mission Boulevard to Highway 84. That's another challenging project requiring removing plenty of dirt and building retaining walls on the south side of the lanes. When completed, that will make life much easier for Pleasanton-bound commuters because the freeway opens up after Highway 84.
Tassano noted that the city of Pleasanton actually held up construction on the next phase north from Highway 84. Caltrans originally had planned to stop those at Stoneridge Drive, creating a traffic disaster just before the 580/680 interchange.
After Pleasanton's complaints, Caltrans agreed to take the lanes all the way to Alcosta Boulevard in Dublin, linking them with the existing lanes.
What's interesting when observing traffic maps in the mornings is how congested I-680 is during the southbound morning commute. There are enough cars and buses getting on at Stoneridge, Bernal and Sunol that the map seems invariably red. And that's with ramp metering on all three interchanges. It's not going to improve until the toll express lanes get added.
I asked Tassano about any plans to improve the 580/680 interchange. The best movement -- a huge bridge connecting westbound 580 to southbound 680 can be engineered, but would be prohibitively expensive. It would have to start before Hopyard Road and land after Stoneridge Drive.
Traffic engineers also considered improving northbound 680 to westbound 580 to eliminate the cloverleaf movement. That appeared promising until the West Dublin-Pleasanton BART Station was built with bridges connecting the station in the freeway median. The engineers had expected tunnels that were used in the terminal station. The project sadly now is on hold.