Will Caltrans Get On Board With a Contraflow Bus Lane on the Bay Bridge?

Image: SPUR
Image: SPUR

The proposal to improve transbay transit with a contraflow bus lane on the Bay Bridge is gaining traction, as the SF Chronicle reported yesterday. The idea has been pushed by proponents at SPUR, AC Transit, and some BART board members for years as a relatively quick and inexpensive solution to move more people between SF and the East Bay. BART is already experiencing “crush loads” under the Bay, but a second transbay tube may not come for decades.

As SPUR explained in a video in 2011, converting an eastbound traffic lane into a westbound bus-only lane during morning commute hours could move an additional 10,000 bus riders per hour — “almost the entire capacity on the entire upper deck” of the Bay Bridge — on AC Transit’s 30 transbay lines, which currently carry an estimated 14,000 passengers per day. It would require the construction of new bus ramps, including one to connect to the Transbay Transit Center in SF.

“With our packed capacity, and all of the development in the Transbay area and [Transbay Center] nearing completion, we’re going to really need that bus capacity,” said Tom Radulovich, a BART board member and director of Livable City. “Building a shiny, multi-billion dollar terminal and having those buses stuck in traffic doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The biggest barrier to implementing the idea is convincing Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over the Bay Bridge, said Radulovich. According to him, the agency has said that the contraflow lane is unnecessary because it can manage car congestion through ramp metering. Caltrans didn’t respond to a request for comment.

As the Chronicle noted, Bay Bridge buses would be too mired in car traffic within 20 years to be competitive with driving, according to a 2011 study that proposed solutions for the bridge crossing. The contraflow lane is being studied in more detail in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Bay Area Core Capacity Transit Study, due out by 2017.

New York City has had a contraflow morning bus lane since 1971. The 2.5-mile Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane carries 62,000 passengers each day, more people than any other segment of roadway in the United States, as illustrated in this Streetfilm. It saves each bus passenger 20 minutes, according to a report from the Transportation Research Board [PDF].

The Bay Bridge lane conversion and ramps could cost anywhere between $51 million and $177 million, according to the Chronicle. Another potential hurdle to clear is ensuring that the ramp to the Transbay Center won’t be blocked by a 16-story building planned at 525 Harrison Street. AC Transit’s board president sent a letter in late March [PDF] urging the SF Planning Department not to approve a development that would not encroach on the ramp.

Radulovich said support for the contraflow lane has grown among BART officials who saw the idea as a “rival” that could siphon off train riders. Now that the economic boom has increased BART’s daily ridership to record levels of 420,000 — 100,000 more than five years ago, according to the Chronicle — BART “thanks goodness [transbay bus service] is there,” he said. BART’s newest board member, Nick Josefowitz, is also a champion of the idea.

“I think the consensus in the region, even among other ‘rival’ transit operators, that AC Transit transbay service is important, is growing,” said Radulovich.

  • Is this somehow suggesting that cars aren’t the answer to our congestion woes? Can’t we simply widen the bridge, or make another one?

  • Maybe we could put the Key System back on the lower deck while we’re at it…

  • Aaron Priven

    Well, the last one only cost $6.4 billion. What’s a few more?

  • KWillets

    Well, if the bridge is the problem, we should build some kind of structure to get across it.

  • Prinzrob

    Hmm, new bridge on/off ramps for the buses, eh? Sounds like a good opportunity to include a bike/ped path ramp in the same project, similar to what is being constructed as part of the east span landing onto Yerba Buena Island right now. That would certainly cut out a lot of the cost of the pricey west span bike/ped gap closure.

  • runn3r85

    I love pictures like this. Remind us what bridges and roads were originally built for. Love the old pictures of Market street with 4 lanes of cable car tracks too.

  • Greg Costikyan

    A few months ago, I drove outbound through the Lincoln Tunnel in NY during in-bound rush-hour — which has a contra-flow bus lane through the tunnel, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC during those hours. It was amazing, seeing bus after bus after bus driving down the lane, carrying (literally) hundreds of thousands of commuters from New Jersey into New York. The normal inbound lanes were clogged with car commuters waiting to pay the tunnel fair; the buses moved at a steady clip.

    Another BART tunnel is a great idea, but will take a decade or more. This can be done now, with obvious and potentially enormous benefit for bus commuters from the East Bay.

  • A contraflow bus lane is a great idea, but making it happen in our bureaucrat mess would take a miracle. It would involve getting AC transit, the SF county transportation authority (separate from the SFMTA), Caltrans, Bart, and the San Francisco and Oakland Mayors and BOS to all get into the same bed together. If this ever happens, it would take decades and involve multiple voter initiatives in order to force these entities to do something that’s against their own self interests but will be a huge benefit to everyone else.

  • Easy

    Contraflow bus lane? Why not a regular direction bus lane? It’s many times more inexpensive, and will reduce the # of cars coming into SF to decongest local streets as well.

  • Dexter Wong

    This idea sounds a little like the Bay Bridge was in 1958-61 when the Key System tracks were removed but AC Transit still used the lower deck to go both ways as the roadway had a divider in the middle.

  • Dexter Wong

    Ah, Bob are you willing to pay for another bridge?

  • Liz Brisson

    This concept has been already for sometime, and at, first it seemed like an obvious win. But upon reviewing the study prepared a few years ago and hearing it presented several times, I (speaking as an individual not on behalf of any agency) am now convinced it is not the right solution to a real need (the real need being maintaining fast reliable travel time for AC Transit buses).

    The simplest way to explain my concern is that to think about this as adding one more travel lane on the Bay Bridge, so we have 6 lanes instead of 5 lanes of vehicles entering San Francisco every morning. There are not frequent enough buses to use the entire capacity of the contra-flow lane so carpools and/or trucks would likely also get to use it. There also would no longer be buses in the upper deck so there would be more capacity for cars up there. SF already bears negative impacts from the level of regional traffic on local streets, and the contraflow lane enables 20% more and could therefore induce more vehicle travel to SF. That means also more traffic queuing up in SoMa in the afternoon peak to get back on the bridge.

    The westbound direction of the Bay Bridge is typically operated for maximum throughput by using metering lights at the toll plaza to only let cars get onto the bridge at the most efficient frequency. Carpools and buses get to use the special queue jump that gets you past the metering lights, so when you get to the bridge, you are not stuck in traffic. However, on some occasions, particularly on weekends when traffic is less peaked but more constant, the Bay Bridge metering lights back-up past the MacArthur Maze and begins to gridlock all the freeways feeding the bridge (880/580/80/24). In these scenarios, Caltrans turns off the metering lights to try to flush out the system and Bay Bridge travel speeds slow down such that even those with the special queue jump experience slower speeds.

    The premise of the contra-flow study was that at some point in the future there would be more vehicle travel than today, such that the situation that sometimes exists on the weekends would become the regular morning situation. By building the contra-flow lane, the net increment of additional traffic would be served such that the buses could still get to the bridge and then have freeflow conditions in the contraflow lane once they got there. By doing so, there are more private vehicle trips as well as bus trips served. And the upper end of the cost estimate- $177 million- to build the new ramps needed is actually quite pricey .

    I believe the solution that is really needed is to re-purpose general purpose lanes to carpool/bus/express lanes on each facility feeding the Bay Bridge such that a fast reliable bus trip is enabled while not allowing the total number of vehicle trips to increase. It is more politically challenging, but otherwise we are just doing a slightly more sophisticated version of the freeway widening mistakes of past decades.

    In addition, even though things are worse in the morning, and the buses have a direct bridge on-ramp for pm eastbound, we also need a solution to better manage afternoon eastbound Bay Bridge traffic, that leaves such a nasty impact in SoMa.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I have never heard of Caltrans turning off the metering lights to relieve traffic on 580/24 and traffic on those roads is always completely jammed every morning, so I think I would have noticed by now.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    This sounds like a tremendously complicated and expensive solution to a problem that could be solved at no cost by simply raising the toll and continuing to raise it until congestion ends.

  • well being that the F-35 fighter jet (which doesn’t work) cost the US taxpayers 1.5 trillion dollars….

    We can scrap that program and build 234 of our bay bridges around the country and still fill our quota of money spent.

  • SF_Abe

    A contraflow lane like this would be a very effective way to get bike access between SF and Yerba Buena (finally connecting the east bay and the city). Way cheaper than the half-billion dollar cost of hanging a path off the side of the bridge.

  • Liz Brisson

    Jeff, my understanding from the consultant who did the contra-flow lane study is that they do this sometimes on the weekends.

  • Liz Brisson

    but then you’d only get bike access in the AM?

  • jamiewhitaker

    Hope MTC considers this thoughtful option too in addition to contra flow. Are they considering it?

  • SF_Abe

    With a contraflow lane on the both decks you could have access all day (minus the time spent switching between the two). In the morning use the lower deck, in the afternoon/evening use the upper deck.

  • Prinzrob

    Building a dedicated bike/ped path on the side of any new bus-only ramp would likely be a better solution, as reusing a bus and bridge lane for bike and ped traffic has a lot of complications and would likely not be a very pleasant facility for people to use.

    The study group working on this project now is tasked with bringing the west-side path cost down to $250M, so I’ll be interested to see what they come up with as alternatives. In the meantime, the east-side path landing on Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands by the end of this year is only going to increase the demand for the facility’s completion across the bay.

  • Jimbo

    Making room for more cars to ease congestion is exactly what’s needed

  • Jimbo

    Your idea won’t lower number of cars . It will increase congestion and increase pollution

  • Jimbo

    A new cross bay bridge from Oakland airport area to candlestick area is actually a great idea and sorely needed

  • david vartanoff

    $400 mill for a piece of junk $6 bill for the crooked designers, consultants and camp followers. Once they announced it would not be rail compatible it was clear the fix was in.

  • Jimbo

    why would we spend money for a bike lane across bay bridge that so few would use.?

  • Jimbo

    whats the purpose of spending a lot of money on bike lanes that would benefit so few?

  • Prinzrob

    …said every critic of every bike project ever.

    Better question: Why wasn’t the bridge constructed with bike/ped access in the first place, or at least why wasn’t it included in the west span seismic upgrade project?

    Building a bike/ped path on the west span might seem expensive to those allergic to spending gobs of money on anything but car projects, but it is in fact the cheapest way to expand transbay capacity, beyond possibly adding a few more ferries.

    Your assumption that few people would use the path isn’t based on the reality of today, or the reality of the coming decades when the path will be needed even more. The Bay Area is growing, congestion is getting worse, and people want options. If the west span pathway will take 10 years to build we need to start on it now, because we certainly can’t pave our way out of gridlock.

  • SF_Abe

    Of course a dedicated bike/ped path would be better, but when? Five years from now? Ten?

    We could have something this year at a fraction of the cost if we wanted. It’s an option worth keeping on the table, but almost nobody is talking about it.

  • Prinzrob

    My understanding is that the new ramps, which will have to be constructed no matter what alignment is used, will be the most costly and time-intensive aspect of any potential bike/ped path on the west span. The pathway itself, whether new construction or reusing an existing lane, is not the main bottleneck. I also feel that a more expensive, purpose-built path, is more politically feasible than converting an existing travel lane.

  • SF_Abe

    From what I read, it was going to cost at least $500M because the weight of hanging an extra path on the west span would require lightening the existing road surface.

    Right now, we have lots of extra space on the bridge– in the morning on the lower deck, and in the evening on the upper deck. If we can use that to get access sooner (probably much, much sooner) then it’s a win.

    We can still try to get a comfortable, purpose-built path built (and open as soon as possible), but in the many-years-long meantime we won’t be cut off.

  • Prinzrob

    The consultants working on alternate alignments right now have been tasked with bringing the cost down to $250M at most, and some of the updates I’ve heard involve lightening the path substantially so that the deck replacement won’t be needed. We should have some more definite info later this year.

  • SF_Abe

    That’s good. I’m glad they’re working on that and I hope they’re successful, but do we really only want one option to choose from (especially before it’s even fully fleshed out)?

  • Prinzrob

    I think the outcome of the study is supposed to be multiple options, each with a cost/benefit analysis. I wouldn’t be surprised if your idea for a reverse commute lane conversion is among them.

  • jd_x

    I think you misunderstand Mr. Gunderson’s post. Just take a quick glance at his brilliant blog to clarify:

  • Sprague

    Jimbo, this hasn’t worked before. Widening freeways and constructing new ones has yet to relieve congestion. Why would this be different?

  • SF_Abe

    hardly /my/ idea, but I look forward to their report!

  • Jimbo

    increasing transbay capacity? with <100 people crossing per day on bike. that's 3 buses or 75 cars that could cross in minutes

  • theqin

    It only weighs so much because Caltrans wants to be able to drive maintenance vehicles on top of it, so it needs to be able to support the weight of their motorized vehicles and not just bikes. Which is crazy because bikes are nowhere close to 4000 lbs, maybe they should just force Caltrans employees to use bike based repair equipment.

  • calwatch

    Roadway geometry wise, I think this could be pretty challenging. The speeds on the EB Bay Bridge are such that a contraflow lane would cause safety issues, plus the Treasure Island left ramp (thus screwing residents who ride the 108). The best solution is just to raise prices on the Bay Bridge during peak and divert the additional funds to more transit.

  • Kristof Didrickson

    Let’s regain lost ground on the bay bridge! Trains, along with auto traffic, benefitted from the bridge until the late 1950s. Let’s take a couple lanes for BART (so train riders can enjoy the view for once), and a couple more for bikes and peds.

  • Michael Smith

    Unfortunately, no. When the new east span was created it was decided to not make it handle rail. So we are stuck with some rather poor choices for a long, long time.

  • That’s too bad, I didn’t realize that was the case. It’s especially unfortunate because running trains over the bridge would be a hell of a lot cheaper than building another BART tube.

  • Prinzrob

    I’ve heard plenty of lowball guesses on the number of people who would use a bike/ped path on the Bay Bridge, but yours is by far the lowest. Congratulations!

  • Jimbo

    whats your number?

  • EastBayer

    Considering that he Golden Gate Bridge, which is located miles and miles from any areas with significant residential or employment density, carries at least 2,500 bikes on an average weekday (and over 5,000 on an average weekend day), that would be a reasonable floor for an estimate. 10,000 seems more accurate…

  • Jimbo

    the GGB would be a ceiling not a floor. It is the most popular tourist destination in the city and the most used bridge in the US for recreational cyclists. I take it 3 mornings per week and 1 weekend day for a ride through the headlands, and there are many like me. The Bay bridge is much longer, not pretty, no destination on the other side of SF that toursists would go to. its just for those few cyclists who would commute from the industrial part of oakland and emeryville to SF. i think 100 per day is probably about right

  • EastBayer

    Recreational cyclists are using it on weekends. Plenty of people use it for commuting (I know of at least two in my office) and the number of weekday bicyclists reflects that. The length is irrelevant because there are at least 200,000 jobs within a half mile of the bridge landing in SF versus perhaps 200 where the Golden Gate Bridge lands. And within 1 mile of the east landing is all of Emeryville (population over 10,000, greater than that of Sausalito and Marin City combined, the latter of which is 4 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge). And within 2 miles, you get a good chunk of Berkeley, all of West Oakland, Uptown, and Temescal, all places with very high rates of cycling.

    When this project is finished, the number of cyclists will put the Golden Gate Bridge to shame.

  • murphstahoe

    From downtown OAK to downtown SF – 11 miles
    Mill Valley to downtown SF – 15 miles

  • Jimbo

    im really sure you don’t believe this nonsense.


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