Commute breakdown jams roads again

Ironically enough, on the same day the 2007 national road mobility report said Bay Area drivers were stuck in traffic for an average 60 hours per year, thousands of cross-bay commuters celebrated by being parked on paralyzed highways for upward of five hours. Big-rig truck accidents on bridges and approaches have now become one of the most worrisome threats to our fragile regional transportation web.

All westbound lanes of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge were shut down from 7 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday when three big-rigs piled up and a load of bagged dry concrete with caustic lye was spilled over the bridge. At least this time a gasoline tanker truck was not involved, so there was no flaming explosion like the one that temporarily demolished the Bay Bridge’s MacArthur Maze approach this spring.

Still, some 20,000 vehicles that normally cross the bridge from the East Bay to the Peninsula on weekday mornings were diverted north or south along the already crowded Interstate 880 route to the Dumbarton and Bay bridges. This naturally turned an entire key sector of the cross-bay morning commute into a parking lot.

Both the California Highway Patrol and the Caltrans hazardous materials cleanup crew performed sterling work during the tie-up. The only improvement we might wish for next time would be to somehow deliver better real-time guidance about route alternatives after detouring the drivers. It is also a relief that nobody has been killed yet in this year’s big-rig bridge overturns, and that no toxic material got into Bay waters.

Bay Area commuters hope for the best each day, and they don’t need more reminders that our regional traffic system is fragile and operating beyond capacity.

Getting to work and back is a daily crap shoot requiring cooperative flexibility, so it becomes no surprise that the most-repeated feature on early-morning radio and TV news shows is the ubiquitous traffic/weather bulletins.

Because our shaky and stretched-thin traffic network does almost always function without meltdowns, the personnel keeping Bay Area commutes moving deserve respect. Hopefully the underlying lesson that elected officials take away from this latest mini-disaster is that the Bay Area simply cannot continue pushing aside long-range regional transportation needs in favor of more immediately crowd-pleasing concerns.

The public can never again allow a traffic project as vital as the Bay Bridge seismic upgrade todrag on for nearly two decades while construction costs double. There can be no more years lost to design nitpicking or to Willie Brown stonewalling the placement of Treasure Island bridge-support columns.

The Bay Area’s population is projected to rise by some 2 million people over the next 30 years. If traffic is bad now, imagine what it will be like with millions more commuters if not enough is done to prepare for it.

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