Bay Bridge metering lights may hinder traffic flow during commutes

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- On Thursday, ABC7 News found out what lane is faster on the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza, Fastrak or cash. Getting that far was only part of the ABC7 News commute challenge. Once drivers make it through the toll plaza you have to deal with those metering lights.

ABC7's morning traffic reporter Alexis Smith got some insight into why certain drivers have an advantage on their morning traffic.

Ask any commuter and they'll tell you how much they hate the Bay Bridge metering lights.

"They're the cause of the traffic. If they just let it go, flowing free like everywhere else, we'd be fine," said one driver.

"I understand what they are trying to do, but sometimes it can make things a little bit worse," another commuter said.

RELATED: ABC7 News conducts commuting challenge on Bay Bridge

"I believe they are very, very poorly run, and they really cause a lot of congestion," said one commuter," one man said.

From Sky 7 you can see what happens once cars pull through the toll plaza. Cars come through as many as 16 lanes at the toll plaza, that narrows to 12 at the metering lights and then down to just five lanes across the bridge.

ABC7 News wanted to know just how much time those metering lights cost drivers so we conducted our own time challenge with two ABC7 News cars. The car with the red 7 took the Fastrak lanes.

Despite the stop and go traffic, the red car made it from the toll plaza to the metering lights in three minutes, not bad. The cash lane took nearly four times as long, 11

John Goodwin is with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He says Fastrak drivers are given an advantage: fewer merge lanes and faster metering lights.

"The metering lights cycle a little bit faster for those Fastrak only lanes," Goodwin said. "We really need to increase the through-put, make the whole operation more efficient for cash payers and for Fastrak customers."

The metering lights were installed in 1974 to keep the Bay Bridge from being gridlocked. Since then, the Bay Area has grown by 2.3 million people and there has only been one significant change to the lights. That was a software update in 1980. Now, 36 years later, Bay Area traffic managers are looking to upgrade those blinking lights.

Inside Caltrans Traffic Management Center in Oakland they keep close tabs on the Bay Area's roadways. When traffic increases on the Bay Bridge, they turn on the metering lights manually.

"All we do is we punch in the metering rate and hit the send button, and the lights will start cycling," said Kane Wong of Caltrans.

It's pretty low tech. Now, the MTC and Caltrans are now working on a $7 million upgrade of the Bay Bridge metering lights. When complete, planners say traffic will move more smoothly on to the bridge. The new lights will take advantage of the latest smart metering technology.

Sensors embedded in the on-ramp talk to sensors on the highway. Together they help keep traffic moving.

"It's hard to think of the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza as an on-ramp, but the idea is to take proven technologies that have been used to meter traffic flows on existing on-ramps, just make it big, and put it out there on the Bay Bridge toll plaza," Goodwin said.

They hope to complete the metering light upgrades by the end of next year.
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