HAYWARD — In 1957, the California Department of Transportation began conducting serious talks with Hayward leaders about plans for a new East Bay freeway.

Mike Sweeney was about 6 years old.

"I was in elementary school, I think, when the original 238 freeway was proposed a long time ago," Sweeney said.

Fast-forward 50 years, and Sweeney is Hayward's mayor. Again. The Foothill Freeway, after decades of political seesawing, revisions, funding shortages, litigation and emotional debate, hasn't been built.

And Hayward's biggest political dilemma of the late 20th century — how to emerge from its unfortunate position as a regional traffic logjam — continues to fester in the 21st.

That's about where the downtown "mini-loop" proposal comes in.

Part of a $111 million alternative to the controversial Foothill Freeway, which the state finally abandoned in 2005, the loop of one-way streets is touted by city engineers as the least destructive method for solving Hayward's traffic woes and improving downtown access.

But as the Hayward City Council prepares for a final decision to either green-light or give up on the loop plan this fall, the downtown merchant community and many residents are adamantly opposed.

Sweeney, though he has yet to take an official position, is among the skeptics.

"On the one hand, folks want tomove through traffic — through town — more quickly," he said. "And at the same time, folks want to make it easier to shop and do business downtown. The concern, I think, that many have in the community is that the mini-loop will do neither. And may make both of those things harder to do."

If downtown Hayward's street grid transforms from two-way to one-way, some say it would be going against the trend. This month, Sacramento will begin to switch a cluster of its downtown streets back to two directions.

"At least with downtown's growing with residential units, the trend has been the opposite," said Linda Tucker, spokeswoman for the city of Sacramento. "When you turn streets from one-way to two-way, you're improving neighborhood livability, access to neighbors, and you're slowing traffic down."

But slowing traffic down is not what everyone wants in Hayward — especially not when out-of-town commuters are clogging local streets to avoid faulty freeways such as Interstate 880 and the Interstate 238 connector.

Residents, merchants and officials disagree on solutions, but many agree that Hayward has a serious traffic problem that needs to be fixed. In the early 1960s, engineers said they knew it was coming.

The pending completion of the federally funded MacArthur Freeway — now better known as Interstate 580 — was about to dump loads of southbound traffic onto downtown Hayward's Foothill Boulevard. Meanwhile, the planned widening of the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge would send a separate load of Peninsula commuters streaming through Hayward from the opposite direction.

And if Hayward was without an efficient freeway bypass, warned Cliff Greene, an assistant Caltrans engineer, then traffic would "jam up Jackson Street and spread out like dammed-up water" onto Hayward's local streets.

Greene's analysis, reported in The Daily Review in 1962, was prescient. State bureaucrats, and the Hayward officials who supported them, promised that if a freeway was built, it would encourage hillside development and allow the Mission-Foothill corridor to blossom into something along the lines of the Peninsula's stately El Camino Real.

And they warned that if a freeway wasn't built, daily traffic on Foothill Boulevard would soon spike from 20,000 to

50,000 vehicles a day.

In 2006, the average daily traffic on Foothill Boulevard between D Street and Mission Boulevard was 54,000 vehicles a day, said Morad Fakhrai, Hayward's deputy public works director. 

But Caltrans' 1950s-era solution — a crisscrossing of concrete freeways laid out over a fast-developing central East Bay landscape — was loathsome to many who would have been in its path.

And so a battle began. First came three sisters — Mildred, Edith and Jeanette Meyers — trying to save the pastoral setting of their Dry Creek Ranch near the Union City-Hayward border. They promised to deed their 1,000-acre ranch to the public park system on the condition the freeway not destroy it.

So Caltrans steered the freeway plans around them and into the heart of Union City and Fremont, but leaders and residents there were infuriated. Hundreds of homes would be demolished — Caltrans started buying them up, and still owns a roughly 300-acre ribbon of land through the Hayward foothills.

The passing years didn't bring much resolution. Money shortages, bureaucratic delays and the burgeoning environmental movement helped contribute to the Foothill Freeway's eventual demise. A lawsuit killed it for good.

Today, many say they are struggling with Hayward's traffic problems, but are more worried that proposed solutions will make things worse.

Lisa Tyler, owner of AIM Mail Center at the corner of B Street and Mission Boulevard, said the traffic on Mission Boulevard outside her business is already too heavy and too fast. But she believes the mini-loop would make things worse by transforming the two-lane road into a one-way, five-lane throughway.

"We're trying to encourage pedestrian access downtown," Tyler said. "We, as a community, need to determine what we want this city to be."

Hayward High School students Alametrine Rushing, 17, and James Burks, 15, haven't heard anything about the Route 238 Corridor Improvement Project, but they know it's difficult and dangerous to cross Foothill Boulevard at D Street. On Thursday, the teenagers were skirting across the wide interchange as commuters geared up to drive around them.

Burks said the city needs to do something — maybe build better crosswalks. But told about the mini-loop, which city officials say would necessitate the demolition of a row of old

D Street houses and businesses, Burks said it didn't seem worth the hassle.

The loop is just one part — the most controversial one — of a project that will span five miles of the Mission-Foothill corridor. Other plans include revamping intersections, such as at Carlos Bee Boulevard and Mission Boulevard. City officials say they will be able to speed up and spruce up corridors that have been languishing for years because of the uncertainty surrounding the Foothill Freeway debate.

If built, the mini-loop would begin at the Five Flags intersection. Foothill Boulevard would become a six-lane road, heading north toward five-lane A Street. The loop would proceed onto Mission Boulevard southbound and back to the Five Flags again.

"There's just no easy solution, no matter what way you look at it," said Fran David, Hayward's interim city manager. She said it is the city staff's belief that they have found the best alternative considering the circumstances that Hayward faces.

But ultimately it will be up to the people of Hayward to weigh in on the plan before the council makes a decision in the fall, she said.

Matt O'Brien can be reached at (510) 293-2473 or mattobrien@dailyreviewonline.com.