A way around crash sites

Major accidents on U.S. Highway 101, which leave drivers sitting helplessly in traffic for hours, may soon be merely a bump in the road for commuters.

There have been three major accidents on the Peninsula’s stretch of Highway 101 in the last 13 months that each closed the road for several hours. A jackknifed big rig shut down the road June 10, an oil tanker spilled gasoline across the freeway Jan. 29 and a big rig-involved crash occurred May 22, 2007.

A new $30 million system, in the early stages of development, would navigate drivers around accidents on the busy freeway between San Bruno and Santa Clara County — zipping drivers through alternative streets, such as El Camino Real.

The so-called San Mateo County Smart Corridors project, similar to one being operated in Alameda County, essentially works through a combination of GPS tracking and traffic monitoring. When atraffic-snarling accident occurs, Caltrans, California Highway Patrol and county workers will post electronic messages on freeway-side signs up to 5 miles away from the crash telling drivers to exit the freeway, said Richard Napier, the executive director of the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo, the group proposing the project.

The signs would navigate motorists off of the highway and onto city streets. Traffic lights on those streets would synchronize with the increased flow in cars so drivers will mostly cruise through green lights until they reach a freeway onramp past the accident and clear of traffic, Napier said.

El Camino Real, which parallels Highway 101, likely would be a road for the detour, Napier said. The road varies from two to three lanes in stretches and mostly carries a speed limit of 35 mph.

The plan, which is about two years away from reality, likely would be used about three to six times per year as major accidents occur, Napier said.

During a freeway snarl, the plan would, however, keep motorists on other roads stuck at red lights longer. Once drivers recognize there is an accident on Highway 101, they exit onto city streets, but in a disorganized manner, San Mateo traffic engineer Gary Heap said. A coordinated detour plan would shift the extra traffic into concentrated areas, he said.

The key to the “delicate balance” of appeasing both freeway and city drivers is to ensure the plan only is implemented once in a while during major accidents, said Millbrae Councilmember Paul Seto, who sits on the boards for C/CAG and the El Camino Real revitalization group, the Grand Boulevard Initiative.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

Smart Corridors project

A new system could help ease the flow of traffic on U.S. Highway 101 during major auto accidents.

199,000: Weekday cars on Highway 101 in San Mateo County

26 miles: The Peninsula’s portion of Highway 101

$30 million: Funding secured for Smart Corridors project

3 to 6: Estimated times the plan would be used annually

*Sources: C/CAG, Caltrans, MTC congestion report

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