Bay Area 'hidden freeways' that were never built

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We all know traffic congestion is a huge problem. So would building more highways help? That's a question the Bay Area have been asking for more than a century.

Is it time to revisit some old ideas?

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As long as cars have been on our streets, California highway planners have seen the need for a network of roads to move cars faster and more efficiently around the Bay Area.

Decades later, a lot of that network is in place. But many of the roads envisioned by planners years ago never got built.

As far back as the 1920's, state routes in our region had been eyed as potential freeways. That would have meant roads like El Camino Real on the Peninsula could have eventually become larger highways.

The plans for a bigger network of freeways only grew in the decades that followed.

John Goodwin is with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission -- the agency that today, oversees the Bay Area's long-term highway plans.

Goodwin said, "This is a plan that really didn't start to germinate until the 1950's, and then flower in the 1960's, and then start withering in the 1970's... so this goes back a long way. "

Goodwin says almost anything could have been possible. Scenic Highway 1 along California's coast was once planned to be a major freeway. Swaths of concrete could have been laid from San Rafael to Pt. Reyes in the North Bay. A multi-lane freeway would alleviate congestion along the path of Highway 17 in the South Bay, and another freeway would have linked Brentwood to Livermore.

"Around the East Bay, in particular, there were a lot of plans for freeways that were not built," said Goodwin.

One plan would have started at 680 in Fremont and traveled along Mission Boulevard to connect at 238 and 580 in Hayward. Caltrans even bought land for exits and interchanges.

The plan was on the books for nearly half a century, but in 2004, the idea officially died.

Jennifer Ott is Hayward's deputy city manager. She says, "It is a long history with a lot of different chapters. But I think, ultimately, there were community groups that ultimately were not supportive of it, and continued to fight the state and keep the freeway from happening."

Ott says that land bought for the freeway exits is now being sold to the city to meet one of the region's other needs.

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"Addressing our housing crisis and building new housing near BART and providing for affordable housing and amenities, new retail developments, parks, trails... that is more important to the city," said Ott.

If it is ever built, Highway 238 would be the eighth Bay Area bridge. It would have connected to Highway 380 right here near SFO, and then continually along this route all the way to Pacifica.

Under Highway 280, you can still see the two overpasses that could carry cars all the way to Rockaway Beach in Pacifica. That plan is not officially dead, but the construction is unlikely to resume any time soon.

There have been a number of proposals to build another connection between the East Bay and San Francisco -- some over the bay, others under it and some right through it.

"One of the most outlandish, in my opinion, proposals was what was designated to be State Route 61," said Goodwin.

That crossing would have started near Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley and traveled parallel to Interstate 80, filling in the Bay, then crossing over the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza.

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Goodwin says it would then, "touch down in Alameda, cross Alameda and then get down into San Leandro, where it would be connected to a new Y-shaped Bay Bridge."

That Y-shaped bridge would have hooked up with Highway 24 along the way and ended near Hunter's Point -- where it "could" have connected to a network of urban freeways that criss-crossed San Francisco.

You can still see the concrete stubs that were part of the plan near the Cesar Chavez exit on Highway 280.

Benjamin Grant is with SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. He says when the freeways started going up, people realized the magnitude of all these plans.

"Starting in the 1930's and culminating in the 1940's and 50's, a whole series of grand plans to build freeways throughout San Francisco, a very comprehensive system of so-called traffic plans were proposed," said Grant.

"The Embarcadero Freeway was the one that woke people up, when people realized what it actually looked like to build these monstrous structures throughout the city," said Grant.

The network of interchanges would go over and under the city, even running along both sides of Golden Gate Park.

"Starting in the 1960's, the freeway revolt really turned the freeway planners back," said Grant.

When the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck in 1989, the Bay Area's feelings about highways changed even more. The Cypress Freeway, a stretch of Highway 880, collapsed, killing 42 people. That raised concerns about stretches of similar freeways in San Francisco.

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Both the Embarcadero and Central Freeways constructed as part of that criss-crossing network were torn down.

Grant said, "Ultimately, a different philosophy prevailed, which is that cities are really meant for people and when we remove some of these big structures, we have the opportunity to open our city to the water, or to reconstruct the urban fabric," he added, "creating some terrific public spaces for people. "

Traffic planners are now looking toward the future. The MTC will start planning for 2050's traffic demands next year. The focus has shifted over the last 100 years. There will be changes, but don't look for these dramatic plans when it comes to our roadways. Many of the proposals now involve improving public transportation.

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"The number one thing that could be done, and could be done easily and quickly, is for folks to put someone in the seat next to them in their car. Our biggest underused transportation resource is the empty seats in people's cars," said Goodwin.

That means your next traffic jam might just be the fight over who gets the front.

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