Seeking to alleviate traffic congestion in Marin County, the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) is currently evaluating adding a third eastbound lane during peak hours and a bidirectional bicycle and pedestrian path on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. As the Bay Area (including Marin County) continues to experience explosive job growth, traffic on the bridge has worsened in recent years. Some traffic results from cut-through drivers from the East Bay going to San Francisco, but most results from East Bay commuters traveling to Marin’s growing jobs market. Known as the I-580 Access Improvement Project, the total cost of the project is estimated at $74 million, with an anticipated completion date of early 2018.
Until 1976, the Richmond-Rafael Bridge actually had three lanes – one lane was closed to install a temporary pipeline to alleviate a drought in Marin. After the pipeline was removed in 1978, the lane was restriped as a shoulder. In June, we highlighted the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge as one of the Bay Area’s biggest bike gaps; a bicycle path along the shoulder has long been a regional goal.
In reviewing media coverage from the Marin Independent Journal and other sources, there seems to be a number of misconceptions about this project questioning its cost, timeline, and the merit of including a bike lane. For example, in an editorial last Saturday, the Marin Independent Journal argued:
“Having the [widening] process tied to a more ambitious and much more costly proposal, adding a bike lane to the top deck of the bridge, is unnecessary and a bureaucratic waste of time and money.”
The day before, columnist Dick Spotswood argued that the project had been “becalmed by useless paperwork.” In the past, he has derided the bike path project as a “lightly used boondoggle” that is “delaying” the widening of I-580. “It’s unconscionable to spend $68 million on this mostly symbolic project,” Spotswood wrote in November.
Today, we thought we’d try to dispel some myths about the project and set the record straight, based on a project fact sheet just released by BATA.
Myth #1: The widening requires no construction, only paint
Because the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge used to have three lanes, there is a tendency to think that adding a third lane is as simple as adding some paint. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
While adding a lane on the bridge itself is relatively straightforward, much of the complications occur at the east end of the bridge approach at Richmond. A third lane would require the reconstruction of a retaining wall on the east side of the bridge to achieve safe sight distances, particularly given the high volume of exiting traffic around an already-tight corner at Richmond Parkway. It would also necessitate structural improvements to the bridge approach to accommodate greater traffic loads.
Myth #2: The bike path is unnecessary and delaying the widening project
A common argument against the bike path by the IJ is that it’s “symbolic” and “unnecessary” and shouldn’t be coupled with, or delaying, the bridge widening. The fact is, it’s not coupled with or delaying anything: as Steve Kinsey, a Marin Supervisor and representative on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) explained earlier this month in the IJ, the bridge bike path is being considered separately from the third lane.
What is coupled with the bridge widening is a short bike path segment on the Richmond approach to the bridge. Adding a third eastbound lane would eliminate the existing bike lane along 580 between Stenmark Dr and Point Richmond – requiring its relocation under state law. This segment has been labeled a “death trap” for cyclists due to the lack of sight lines and protection for bicyclists; multiple cyclists have been tragically killed or seriously injured on this poorly-designed segment over the past decade.
BATA seeks to resolve this issue by adding a protected bike path between Point Richmond and Stenmark Dr/Point Molate that would be tied to the third lane project. According to Kinsey’s op-ed, BATA, Caltrans, and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) have arrived at a preferred configuration for this path, which by itself would play a valuable role in connecting to the Bay Trail expansions at Point Molate, helping to jumpstart the area’s revitalization as a recreation and open space destination. State legislation would be required to exempt the project from relocating the bike lane, but this would be nonsensical policy given that most of the cost and timeline for the Richmond approach are driven by the retaining wall.
As for the merit of the bridge bicycle path, the project is supported by decades of state and regional policies supporting nonmotorized access to bridges and the Bay. Section 888.2 of the California Streets and Highways Code states that Caltrans shall “incorporate nonmotorized transportation facilities in the design of freeways on the state highway system along corridors where nonmotorized facilities do not exist.” The Bay Trail Plan states that “bicycle and pedestrian access [on bridges] should be actively sought.”
The bike path may not attract enough commuters to reduce traffic congestion, but the same could be said for any Bay Trail investment across the Bay Area, including those in Marin. The purpose of these investments is to expand both commuting and recreational options, improve public access to the Bay, and make the region more livable.
Myth #3: The bike path is skyrocketing project costs
After dispelling myths #1 and #2, it is clear that the bike path alone is not escalating project costs. In fact, contrary to earlier IJ reports, the cost is about a 50/50 split. Of the estimated $74 million cost, the most costly component is in fact the third eastbound lane, at $30 million (this total appears to include the Point Richmond-Point Molate bike path relocation). The bridge bicycle path is estimated to cost $29 million. A $15 million contingency was also added to the total project cost to reflect uncertainty at the planning-level stage.
Myth #4: The environmental review process is “useless paperwork”
Given the worsening traffic congestion in Marin, there is understandably some discontent that the bridge widening will not occur for three years. Assemblyman Levine’s bill to begin the project design phase during the environmental review process may help accelerate the timeline, as will some political pressure to encourage cooperation between BATA, Caltrans, CCTA, TAM, and other agencies.
However, a perceived sense of urgency is not cause for circumventing state law altogether. Spotswood argues that the environmental review process is “superfluous” and that “there’s not going to be any negative impact… from opening the existing roadway to traffic. If anything, the decreased gridlock… will cut greenhouse gas emissions.” In reality, there may be some negative impacts on public health and the environment that necessitate examination in order to be effectively mitigated.
It is true that some short-term congestion relief on 580, 101, and Sir Francis Drake Blvd can be expected as a result of additional capacity, which will reduce emissions associated with traffic congestion. But over the long term, additional traffic capacity tends to fill up – if it’s easier for people to live in the East Bay and drive to Marin or cut-through to San Francisco, more people will do so. Induced demand isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and growth is inevitable, but over the long run, more traffic will increase environmental impacts on the corridor, including but not limited to emissions, air quality, and noise. These impacts may negatively affect communities in Richmond, San Rafael, Larkspur, and beyond.
The environmental review process seeks to identify mitigation strategies to reduce these impacts, such as expanded transit service, a bicycle path, sound walls, and improvements to roadways and intersections at either end of the bridge. It’s a necessary process in undertaking a major project like the bridge widening.
Myth #5: The project will relieve congestion over the long term
Finally, let’s circle back to the big picture. Widening the bridge will reduce traffic congestion over the short term and increase throughput, but over the long term traffic congestion is likely to continue to grow as more people use the bridge. The question becomes: what is causing traffic congestion on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in the first place?
The underlying problem driving the growth of travel between the East Bay and Marin is Marin’s shortage of workforce housing. Marin is among the top five least affordable counties in the country: only 15% of homes for sale in 2014 were affordable for households earning Marin’s already-high median income of $90,708. For most teachers, fire fighters, service employees, and middle class families, Marin’s existing housing stock is simply not affordable, and workers must commute from elsewhere.
Moreover, Marin is adding jobs at an exponentially faster rate compared to housing. In 2014, the rate of job growth (4%) was thirteen times faster than the rate of housing growth (0.3%). As The Greater Marin noted on Twitter, San Rafael added just one housing unit in all of 2014, a shockingly low total for a city of 57,000 people. Those extra commuters need to come from somewhere, and many are coming from the East Bay.
Despite these trends, Marin remains vehemently against housing construction. The reasoning behind Marin’s opposition to housing is rooted in the county’s strong environmentalist and preservationist roots. Yet, ironically, the same environmentalist attitudes that preserved some of Marin’s most idyllic open spaces are now being applied to oppose housing construction within existing downtowns and transit areas, as envisioned by the Bay Area’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, Plan Bay Area. Rather than accommodating job growth with housing in areas where a greater share of trips could be made via transit, walking, and biking, Marin has pushed growth to farther away where people are forced to drive longer distances to jobs in the county, including the relatively more affordable East Bay. It’s no surprise, therefore, that traffic congestion on the bridge has worsened.
Marin has two choices. On the one hand, it can continue restricting housing growth and accept more traffic congestion from people driving into and through the county – recognizing this results in more traffic congestion and associated environmental impacts. On the other hand, it can accommodate more housing growth in its existing downtowns and transit corridors – recognizing that people have a greater chance of driving less to get to work or run errands, but accepting some increase in traffic congestion.
Adding a third lane and bike path to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is a lot more complex than meets the eye. It involves some design and engineering challenges that extend beyond just repainting the bridge, and consequently carries real costs. The bike path offers long-term benefits to completing a major gap in the Bay Trail and jumpstarting the revitalization of Point Molate. The third lane, while worthwhile in the short term, will not provide a silver bullet to Marin’s long-term traffic congestion and growth issues. A more holistic approach to transportation and land use planning is needed for Marin to address underlying causes of traffic congestion over the long term.