Award-Winning Bay Area Bridge Will Soon be a Failure

A plan to widen the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge somehow won an award for easing congestion even though it is certain to increase traffic.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge won an award for getting fatter
The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge won an award for getting fatter

And the award for most idiotic infrastructure project of the year goes to … a scheme to widen the Bay Area bridge that will almost certainly increase traffic in the long run.

The California Transportation Foundation chose to recognize a plan that added a third lane of traffic on the eastbound portion of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge last year as its 2018 Freeway/Expressway Project of the Year, at a ceremony in Sacramento last month.

Apparently Los Angeles’s widened Interstate 405 didn’t fail spectacularly enough.

As more drivers realize that the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge can accommodate more vehicular traffic, more motorists and trucks will choose the interstate route, filling in the lane and causing additional slowdowns. It’s called “induced demand” and its a welldocumented result of adding lanes.

That’s what happened in Southern California after 10 miles of the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvement Project were widened five years ago. Congestion on the freeway has gotten even worse, if you can imagine it (and California drivers don’t need to merely imagine it).

Still, Foundation officials weren’t looking to a car-choked future when they lauded the California Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transportation Commission for their $53-million lane expansion boondoggle that they claim eliminated an estimated 900,000 combined hours of congestion for Interstate 580 drivers — or roughly $59 per hour of traffic — according to the MTC.

Northern California transit heads were thrilled with the attention for their fatter bridge.

“We are pleased the lane has worked so well and that it has brought some traffic relief to drivers,” MTC project manager Chris Lillie told the Mercury News in a statement. “It is definitely an honor for our team to be selected for such a prestigious award.”

The traffic flows have gone so smoothly that some Marin County leaders are advocating for an additional westbound lane for the span across the northern San Francisco Bay.

“The improvements made in the eastbound direction have made a significant impact on people’s lives in terms of reducing traffic,” Marin County supervisor Damon Connolly told the Mercury News. “It demonstrates what can be accomplished when agencies work together toward achieving a public need.”

Ironically, the efforts of Marin County leaders to open a westbound lane for more car traffic is tearing communities apart.

Connolly, an MTC and the Transportation Authority of Marin board member, has been hard at work trying to nix a long-conceived plan to add a bike and pedestrian path on the bridge’s upper deck. There are currently three lanes for cars on the lower deck and two lanes on the upper deck.

“There’s justified concerns about the cost of the project versus likely usage by cyclists,” he told Streetsblog SF in January.

The bike/ pedestrian path was scheduled to open in April — but the Transportation Authority of Marin shortened its pilot phase from four years to only six months.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt fired back in a January 28 letter accusing the authority of “taking unilateral action in bad faith to change the agreed-on intent of the upper deck improvements.”

Meanwhile the MTC is moving ahead with a $100,000 study to examine converting the bridge’s westbound shoulder to a third vehicle lane — eliminating the bike path.

Where’s the award for that?

11 thoughts on Award-Winning Bay Area Bridge Will Soon be a Failure

  1. The bridge originally had 3 lanes on both sides when it was built so the point of this article is moot.

  2. While I agree that most highway widening projects are a disaster, the author clearly doesn’t know the particulars of this project. I drive it every day. As the commenter above says, this bridge was originally three lanes. The third lane is now only used during commute hours when traffic is heavy and when the third lane was added back, it completely solved a terrible backup that would add 20 to 30 minutes to the Eastbound commute in the evenings. So in some ways, it sort of deserves the award.

  3. “… it completely solved a terrible backup that would add 20 to 30 minutes to the Eastbound commute in the evenings. So in some ways, it sort of deserves the award.”

    … for now. Wait a few years for induced demand to kick in and the congestion will return. It isn’t hard to add a lane, see immediate improvement, and claim victory. But to create lasting improvement requires anticipating and accommodating induced demand. Freeway lane addition projects are poor at handling induced demand due to their natural inefficiency. Usually the solution to accommodate induced demand is … more lane additions.

  4. Bryan is correct. Both decks were 3 lanes as built. The third lane WB was removed 20 or so years ago for a temporary water main when Marin was short of potable water. More recently the third lane has been where road repair crews parke machinery. Ultimately the bridge needs to be replaced, BUT must include tracks so that SMART can extend toa transfer to BART.

  5. Agree with the others above. It is not accurate to paint this as adding a lane. They restored a lane that had been closed.

    Also, I’m not too worried about induced demand on the RSR Bridge. The approach is very congested along Sir Francis Drake and the signal you must go through at Bellam on the ramp from 101N to 580. These act as metering lights and will continue to limit the appeal of this route no matter how traffic moves on the bridge itself. This just provides some relief after those choke points.

    What will induce demand is if they ever build a direct connector from 101N to 580. That will create massive traffic all the way down to SF. I hope that never gets built.

  6. The upper deck of the bridge has been raining down concrete on the lower deck, twice this year, so expect more closures until engineers arrive, inspect and clear for use. Eventually calls for a new bridge, which could cost $10 billion if it follows the example of the last cross bay bridge from Oakland to San Fran. There are still backups to Highway 101 during evening commute hours, because the one lane section of Sir Francis Drake approaching the three lanes is where the bottleneck was and still is. Another factor is there are no tolls on the Golden Gate bridge out of San Francisco or the Richmond Bridge out of Marin, while there are two tolls on this route to SF, so there is an induced demand to use that route by East Bay commuters to SF, who may use the one tolled Oakland/SF bay bridge on their incoming commute. I’m not aware of any surveys showing this, but it makes financial sense, if you commute five days a week.

  7. I’m not sure how safe or useful this bridge would ever be for bicycles, even if that upper lane was “protected” from 60 mph traffic lanes,(50mph speedlimit rarely enforced). It’s extremely windy with dangerous sideways gusts that could easily take down a peloton. The approach roads are all high speed, heavy truck traffic, without any plans for protected or otherwise bike lanes. Many similar bridges have bike transport vans to “ferry” cyclists from safer pickup to drop off spots. While not perfect, they would be considerably cheaper and safer than the proposed lane.

  8. This is an oversimplification of what happened. The bridge was built with three lanes each direction. One lane each direction was closed years ago, and the recent project restored the third lane eastbound during peak periods. The price tag was high because Caltrans took the opportunity to redesign both ends of the bridge to meet modern interstate standards.

    Calls to restore the westbound third lane–also during peak periods only–are warranted because buses and carpools have no way to bypass congestion (unlike the Bay Bridge).

    The Richmond Bridge is not conducive to biking because of geography and design: Unlike the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the Richmond Bridge has high winds and steep slopes. While MAMILs salivate at the prospect of easy centuries on the weekend, it isn’t a practical bicycle commute corridor for anybody else. So if you don’t want everyone driving, the third lane westbound is necessary so that buses (and carpools) have a chance at relevancy. Comparisons to the Sepulveda Pass are a stretch.

    As a bus commuter in this corridor, my afternoon travel time nearly halved when the third lane opened. The same could happen in the morning. We aren’t talking about a few minutes here and there like with most transit projects but rather an almost 50% reduction! I am not worried about induced demand since the traffic signals on Sir Francis Drake and at Bellam Blvd. function as metering lights. Sure let’s have that talk if Marin County moves forward with their 101-to-580 freeway ramp plan, but that isn’t this project.

  9. How much induced demand will there be given that Marin County considers itself a county-scaled gated community and is resisting significant new housing? I suppose some of the induced demand could be from/to Sonoma County, but….

  10. The new lane simply shifts more traffic on 80 where there isn’t an extra lane.

    Perhaps we would ask I-80 commuters how they feel about additional vehicles coming from the Richmond bridge slowing down their commute.

  11. The funny thing is traffic is so bad in downtown San Francisco you’ll spend more time trying to get on to the bridge. BART is almost always faster. If only there was a commuter rail connection across to the East BAY for Amtrak/Capital Corridor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Oregon Gov Candidate: End Gridlock By Adding a Lane to Every Freeway

It’s not that unusual to see politicians approaching the problem of traffic congestion with a childlike simplicity. But Oregon gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce’s “solution” to eliminate gridlock in the Portland area might be the most infantile of them all. Pierce wants to add a lane to every major freeway in the region and “Presto!” — problem solved. […]

Sacramento Freeways and the “Small Town Mindset”

“It’s time to drop the small-town mindset and go for a big fix.” That’s how Tony Bizjak of the Sacramento Bee described plans to widen the gridlocked Capital City Freeway through the city at a cost of $700 million. Highway widening, to him, must be emblematic of a “big-city mindset.” But as Network blog Systemic Failure points out, […]

CA Voters Reject Measures With Lots of Highway Money and a Dash of Transit

On Tuesday night, voters approved major transit improvement plans in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Raleigh, and Seattle. There were other types of transportation measures on local ballots — they focused on highway expansion and lumped in transit funding as a secondary consideration. TransitCenter reports that in California, highway-centric packages didn’t have the same appeal as transit-focused ballot measures: Consider California. While […]