A 2012 deadline to start work on projects funded by state bonds means major fixes are coming soon to a bottleneck near you.
Among the first jobs in a $5 billion building blitz will be extending carpool lanes on Interstate 880 between Milpitas and San Jose and from Oakland to San Leandro, followed next month by adding merging lanes along Highway 1 in Santa Cruz and on 101 from Mountain View to Palo Alto.
"Bring on the merge lanes," cheered Alex Khomenko, a 34-year-old software entrepreneur from Mountain View. "I have high hopes for the 101 project. It's badly needed."
Also ready for the cone zone in a few months will be the Interstate 280-880 interchange next to Valley Fair in San Jose, I-580 in the Livermore Valley, I-80 east of the Bay Bridge in Alameda County, Highway 4 in Contra Costa County and 101 at the Red Barn in Monterey County.
As if that's not excitement enough, next month, groundbreaking begins to extend BART to the South Bay.
Combined with roads and rail lines already under construction -- the Bay Bridge, the Caldecott Tunnel, Doyle Drive, Devils Slide, BART to the Oakland airport -- the building boom is the biggest the Bay Area has seen in 20 years. And oddly enough, we have both bad and good economic times to thank for it.
When the economy was on solid ground, voters were happy to approve new taxes to ease their commutes. When the recession slammed the nation, stimulus dollars flowed in. And bids from contractors eager for work have come in 25 to 30 percent under estimates for three years, which has helped trim construction costs and freed up more than $1.3 billion for other improvements since mid-2010.
Voters OK tax hikes
Voters throughout the region have approved half-cent hikes in county sales taxes for much of this, along with higher tolls on the seven state-owned Bay Area bridges twice. And in 2006, voters statewide approved $20 billion for transportation in a bond measure.
Included was a mandate that any project funded by those bonds be under construction by the end of this year. That includes nearly every project about to break ground.
"A lot of the construction activity getting under way now is the result of what voters approved five or more years ago," said John Goodwin with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "Voters want better mobility, and they have shown a willingness time and again to dig into their own pockets to pay for it. New projects are a tangible commitment to keeping faith with the voters."
Most work involves adding extra lanes, but the I-80 job is one of the most interesting. The $95.3-million project will use "smart" technology and not extra lanes to grapple with the Bay Area's most congested freeway, the stretch between the Bay Bridge and the Carquinez Bridge. It will include the most advanced metering light system in the Bay Area, in which timing automatically resets based on the flow on the freeway.
That's good, said Ed Chainey, of Richmond, who says the lack of meters is "why I-80 through Berkeley is such mayhem every single day for hours on end."
Low construction bids have allowed Bay Area counties to return $100 million to the state in savings for projects funded with bonds, and those funds can speed up other work. The $33 million to widen Highway 4 to four lanes and rebuild the Sand Creek Interchange in Brentwood is coming from such savings.
But the competition for those dollars is fierce. The Valley Transportation Authority returned $56 million to the state after low bids came in for the 101 and 880 widening jobs. It hoped some of that money would be sent back to rebuild the Capitol Expressway interchange at 101 to make up for a $6 million shortfall. But not a penny was returned to the VTA, which had to use local funds earmarked for other projects to make up for the gap.
"So far none of those savings are planned to go back to any other project in Santa Clara County," VTA highway director John Ristow said. "If we had more local funding, we would have developed other projects in the county to be able to compete for those savings. Unfortunately we don't have much funding flexibility on the highway side."
Traffic officials worry that the construction blitz could end. The state says the cost of upgrading and maintaining its transportation system is $341 billion for the next decade. Yet there is only $147 billion in projected revenue for these purposes.
"When the bonds run out, it all could go downhill," said Dianne Barth of the San Joaquin Council of Governments, which is overseeing a $500 million upgrade of Highway 99 from Stockton to Manteca. "There may be no money. End of game."
But for now, many motorists are relieved that major choke points are being addressed.
"They are finally going to fix the 880 ramps to Valley Fair?" said Michael Nguyen of San Jose. "I've been waiting for this for 20 years. About time."
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.
TRANSPORTATION Taxes approved by voters
1984-2008: Sales-tax measures in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties pass -- several by two-thirds margins.
1992: Nine-cents-per-gallon state gas tax increase -- statewide.
1998 and 2004: Toll hikes
on all state-owned bridges
in Bay Area.
2006: $20 billion in Prop. 1B bonds statewide.
2010: $10 vehicle registration fee for pavement repairs approved in five Bay Area counties.