From the Roadshow archives: When Sunol Grade replaced Bay Bridge as worst traffic jam in Bay Area

From the Roadshow archives: When Sunol Grade replaced Bay Bridge as worst traffic jam in Bay Area

Editor’s note: Mr. Roadshow wanted to share some of his favorite columns and stories from more than 30 years of informing, entertaining and getting things changed for Bay Area (and beyond) drivers. He’ll be back on the road with new material soon. In the meantime, please keep sending Mr. Roadshow your comments or questions to mrroadshow@bayareanewsgroup.com.
This story originally was published on February 10, 1999.


It’s now official. The thousands of Interstate 680 motorists who rise as early as 3:30 in the morning to beat the traffic jams over the Sunol Grade drive the region’s worst daily commute.

For the first time since Caltrans began tracking congestion levels in 1981, the Bay Bridge has been toppled as the worst commute on state roads in the nine Bay Area counties.

“Oh, wonderful,” said David Rodriquez, who commutes 95 miles from Delhi in Merced County to the East Bay on I-680 and must leave home in predawn hours to have any chance of getting into the office in less than two hours. “I’m not too happy about this.”

But Sunol Grade commuters aren’t alone in their misery. Five other commutes feeding into Silicon Valley are among the worst — the most ever in the California Department of Transportation rankings for the region. The San Mateo Bridge ranked as the third most congested route, while Interstate 880 through Fremont, the Dumbarton Bridge, Highway 101 through San Jose and Highway 237 round out Silicon Valley’s list of worst commutes.

“We thought in our last report that the next big battleground would be in San Mateo County, places like Redwood City, San Mateo and Redwood Shores,” said Albert Yee, Caltrans chief of highway operations. “That’s where Silicon Valley is creeping north, like with the huge Oracle development at Ralston and Redwood Shores.”

Caltrans ranks routes on the basis of daily hours of delay. State engineers compile that number by checking how many vehicles on the road are driving below 35 mph for more than 15 minutes at a time. Motorists on I-680 spent more than 7,200 hours stuck in traffic each day in 1998, compared with the 5,840 hours that drivers on the I-80 approach to the Bay Bridge spent idling in traffic each day.

State officials predicted two years ago that the Sunol Grade would overtake the Interstate 80 commute to the Bay Bridge as the region’s worst. In 1994, I-680 ranked a lowly 28th on the list of worst commutes, but it jumped to second in 1995 and remained there until this year. No report was done in 1997 because of budget cutbacks.

A reason for the flip-flop in the top two spots: new carpool lanes on I-80 “that have been a real success, beyond anyone’s imagination,” Yee said, noting that Bay Bridge motorists spent 10,340 hours a day idling in traffic in 1995 but only 5,840 last year.

There have been no improvements in the past few years on I-680, although a southbound carpool lane is planned from Highway 84 to Highway 237 over the next several years. Still, Caltrans’ Yee said he believes traffic has peaked on 680.

“Congestion is starting at 5 in the morning and lasting close to 10,” he said. “People aren’t willing to tolerate much more than that.”

The biggest jump in the rankings came on the Dumbarton Bridge, which rose from the 17th to the sixth most congested route. That’s no shock to regular users of the span.

“Traffic the last few weeks, and months, has been very busy,” said Scott Underwood, who commutes 15 miles from his home in Newark to downtown Palo Alto. “I’m now walking out the door at 5:30 in the morning and coming home after 7 at night. Only then is traffic OK.”

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Among other findings in the report released Tuesday:

Bay Area commuters spent nearly 112,000 hours each day crawling in traffic last year, up from the 90,000 hours in 1996. Officials estimate that congestion costs area drivers and businesses nearly $1.2 million a year.
Nearly 300 miles of freeways were congested, up about one-third from the 218 congested miles reported in 1990.
The rate of increase in congestion has slowed. While congestion levels soared 31 percent from 1995 to 1996, increases averaged 12 percent over the past two years.
Congestion in Sonoma County rose the most, up 55 percent from two years earlier.
Congestion in San Mateo County for the second time surpassed both San Francisco and Marin County added together.

Highway 101 in Santa Clara County cracked the most congested top 10 for the first time. Caltrans said 101 is broken up into several sections for the study. If added together, “the 101 corridor from Redwood City to the southern part of San Jose,” Yee said, “might be the most congested of them all.”

That’s enough bad news for one day.