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Express bus service on El Camino Real is poised to take a major step forward over the next year with the installation of traffic signal technology built to prioritize bus travel.

Following the successful testing of “intelligent” traffic signals in San Mateo over the last year-and-a-half, the county Transportation Authority on Thursday approved about $573,000 to expand the system.

More than 50 traffic signals in San Carlos, Belmont and San Mateo will receive upgrades designed to detect approaching buses and hold the signal or shorten red lights to keep them on schedule under the program, SamTrans spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.

An estimated 18,000-20,000 El Camino bus riders could benefit from the new technology. Preliminary tests indicate the lights cut average bus intersection delays by 30 percent and reduced travel time by 7 percent, Dunn said.

“It will make mass bus transit smoother, better and quicker, and we think more people will ride the buses if their performance is improved,” said Transit Authority Chairman and San Mateo Councilman John Lee.

While similar technology is used on a handful of express routes by bus agencies in Santa Clara and Alameda counties, and is being tested in San Francisco, the SamTrans technology is unique in that it will take into account east/west traffic crossing El Camino. “You don’t want to take away one traffic jam [on El Camino] and create another one,” Dunn said.

“I think it’s a great idea, quite frankly,” said daily bus rider and Millbrae resident Seth Yatovitz.

Increased traffic on Highway 101 — coinciding with an improving economy — has meant more late buses, something he hopes “intelligent” signals will correct, said Yatovitz, who sits on the SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee.

Installation of the new technology is expected to take place over the next year-and-a-half, at the same time Caltrans is scheduled to make signal improvements in the area, Dunn said. Eventually, all of El Camino Real will have the new technology, Dunn said.

County supervisor and SamTrans board member Rich Gordon, praised the program as an example of good technology use. “We are the heart of the tech revolution in this country and if we can’t find a way to use technology to move people around then shame on us,” Gordon said.

Intelligent traffic signals are just one element of a broader plan to expand express bus service, officials said. Future upgrades could include special bus lanes, real-time schedules at bus stops that track buses using global positioning and wireless Internet access for riders, Chief Development Officer Ian McAvoy said.

The express bus service idea, to a large extent, sprang from the successful Baby Bullet train service launched by Caltrain two years ago. Much like Caltrain before the Baby Bullet, SamTrans has struggled to increase revenues and ridership in the face of escalating operating costs in recent years. Transit experts believe speedier buses that can compete with vehicle travel times could attract more riders.


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