Bay Area traffic piling up again

The latest regional highway congestion statistics confirm a common judgment of longtime commuters: Traffic volume is again rising steadily towards the truly irritating and productivity-draining levels experienced during the dot-com peak of 2000.

As last Tuesday's announcement of the annual report by Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission put it: “If your drive to work seems to be taking longer than it did a couple of years ago, it's no illusion.”

The Caltrans/MTC report showed that on typical weekday Bay Area freeway commutes, vehicles spent about 135,700 hours in congested conditions, defined as average speeds below 35 miles per hour for 15 minutes or longer. This is a 9 percent worsening from the prior year, bringing regional traffic closer to the 177,600 commute hours wasted daily during 2000 at the height of the high-tech boom.

It must be noted that these traffic figures only go up to the year 2005. With the Bay Area economy still continuing to recover, it is likely that even more commuters are crowding the roads in 2006. The only good thing to be said for Bay Area highway congestion is that it tends to be a by-product of regional prosperity. When fewer good jobs are available, fewer commuters are on the highways.

According to the state Employment Development Department, some 26,000 new jobs were created in the Bay Area during 2005. So it comes as no surprise that the 2005 congestion jump was also the biggest increase since 2000. Regional commute traffic dropped off in 2001 with the dot-com bust and did not begin to recover until 2004.

The Top 10 worst bottlenecks in the Bay Area are familiar and have not seen many changes in the new Caltrans/MTC report. Since key regional centers are separated by water, the worst traffic delays tend to be concentrated at major approaches to the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.

Highway congestion across downtown San Francisco between the U.S. 101/Interstate 80 merge and the Bay Bridge is ranked No. 4 in the 10-worst list, with seismic retrofitting on the bridge expected to make matters even worse for the next few years. Southbound U.S. 101 where it narrows beyond San Francisco International Airport is also a predictable crawl during much of the week.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission says it is earmarking as much money as possible for fixing the familiar bottlenecks. However, an estimated $14 billion would be needed to do it all and only half of that is expected in revenues.

At least now more hope is on the horizon, with the $19.9 billion infrastructure bond cleared for the November ballot. MTC officials admit the extra money is “not a panacea.” But they say passage of the bond could speed completion of some long-needed Bay Area transportation improvements. At this point, any bit of good traffic news is welcome for congestion-weary Bay Area commuters.

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