New metering lights coming to Bay Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Welcome to commuter hell. The morning commute on Interstate 80 to San Francisco. Once you get through the toll plaza, you'll slowly make your way to the dreaded metering lights.

"We are looking at a system, at best, is approaching 40-year's old and that's beyond creaky," said John Goodwin. He is with the metropolitan transportation commission, the agency that manages Bay Area highways.

He says the Bay Bridge can only handle 10,000 vehicles an hour-- so those metering lights are necessary, but he agrees the current metering lights need to go.

"It really needs to be completely rebuilt," said Goodwin.

The metering lights were installed in 1974 to keep the Bay Bridge from being grid-locked. Since then, the Bay Area has added 2.3 million people. There has only been one significant change to the lights, it was a software update in 1980.

"The metering lights are determined by the flow of traffic, and the total number of cars on the highway that are accessing the highway and at that point, once that determination has been made, then they turn the metering lights on," said Caltrans spokesperson Chiconda Davis.

Two years ago, we took you inside the Caltrans Traffic Management Center in Oakland where that happens. Then traffic increases on the Bay Bridge, they turn on the lights manually.

Caltrans engineer Kane Wong explained, "all we do is we punch in the metering rate and hit the send button, and the lights will start cycling."

That's right, it's pretty low tech. The MTC was supposed to start work on a new high-tech metering system last year.

"We've lost a year," said Goodwin.

The $7-million upgrade will take advantage of the latest smart metering technology and move traffic more smoothly on the Bay Bridge.

"So we'll have a new operational system, now on target for December of 2019," said Goodwin.

Some of that technology is already in place. Sensors embedded in onramps talk to sensors on the highway together they keep traffic moving. Signs above the highway turn on to warn drivers of hazards ahead and direct them around accidents.

"So far since it has been active, we have activated it 712 times," said Davis.

Those signs have been in place since 2016.

"Caltrans is continuing to monitor and fine-tune the system, and so the system is growing with traffic. It's not going to eliminate congestion - but it is helping us monitor it and better judge what's happening on the roadways."

Combined with a new metering light system, the Bay Bridge commute is expected to move a little smoother, but don't expect those cash lanes to go away anytime soon.

"It's not a matter of if we go to all electronic toll collection, but really a matter of when," said Goodwin.

"It won't happen at the Bay Bridge for certain, until we've got a new metering light system in place, and proven," said Goodwin.

Expect those new metering lights to be fully operational by May of 2020.
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