Escaping tie-ups on Highway 101

U.S. Highway 101 is traditionally the busiest roadway connecting San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Some 199,000 vehicles traverse this crucial Peninsula route every weekday. So, when a major accident plugs the traffic flow, the entire commute crawls to a halt.

No less than three big-rig accidents in the past 13 months have shut down Highway 101 around the mid-Peninsula for hours at a time during peak commutes. A jackknifed big rig shut down the road June 10, a capsized oil tanker poured gasoline across the freeway Jan. 29 and a multiple-vehicle crash involving another big rig took place May 22, 2007.

Thousands of helpless drivers were trapped in hours of massive gridlock after each accident, needlessly wasting vast amounts of time and money while pumping unnecessary tons of pollution into the atmosphere.

Now, the hope is that within two years, these traffic nightmares can be alleviated.

The new $30 million San Mateo County Smart Corridors project is just getting under way. It will detour drivers around accident sites, directing vehicles off the highway and navigating sudden increases of traffic through nearby city streets. A similar system already operates successfully in Alameda County, where the highways connecting the East Bay to San Francisco and Santa Clara County are constantly on the verge of commute gridlock.

A traffic-management plan such as Smart Corridors could not have existed before the availability of contemporary computerized electronics. The system combines global positioning system tracking with advanced traffic monitoring. During major highway-crash bottlenecks, electronic warnings would quickly be displayed on freeway signs up to 5 miles from the accident.

The signs would tell drivers to exit the highway and then guide vehicles through city streets to a freeway onramp beyond the accident. Traffic signals would synchronize with the heavier flow of cars, enabling drivers to mostly cruise through green lights.

One strong advantage for Smart Corridors along the Peninsula is that El Camino Real, San Mateo County’s major throughfare, conveniently parallels Highway 101. The wide road is generally six lanes and has a speed limit of 35 mph. However, the downside of El Camino Real is that its jurisdiction is a crazy quilt of overlapping authorities split among a dozen cities and state government.

Still, it is clearly in everybody’s best interest to cooperate in detouring Highway 101 tie-ups. For one thing, Smart Corridors would only be used three to six times per year, as major accidents occur. Motorists already spill over onto city streets when they recognize Highway 101 is blocked ahead. But right now, they detour chaotically. Smart Corridors would remove the extra traffic burden from neighborhood streets as quickly and smoothly as possible.

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