Monday, July 02, 2007

Benicia Span To Provide Relief For Commuters

Benicia Span To Provide Relief For Commuters
By Barry Eberling

BENICIA - Frustrated commuters stuck in evening traffic jams on the Benicia Bridge have watched their time-saving salvation slowly being constructed amid the waters of the Carquinez Strait to the east.

Their long wait is just about over. The $1.2 billion second Benicia Bridge span - some 17 years in the planning and seven years in the building, and plagued by cost overruns and delays - could open in late August or September.

"It will make a big difference in getting people across the bridge," said David Thacker, who commutes from Fairfield to his job in Martinez and experiences the bridge backups, particularly on Friday evenings.

The new bridge could also be a double-edged sword for Solano County. With the traffic backup removed from the bridge, local transportation leaders expect congestion to move to the next potential bottleneck - the Interstates 80 and 680 interchange near Cordelia, some eight miles away.

But there's no denying the new bridge is a milestone. One Benicia Bridge with three lanes going each direction just isn't enough to handle bustling I-680. Evening rush-hour traffic sometimes backs up for several miles into Contra Costa County.

"This is a big clog," state Department of Transportation spokesman Keith Wayne said.

Once the new span is in, it will carry five lanes of northbound traffic. The old Benicia Bridge will carry five lanes of southbound traffic, with one lane being devoted to walkers and bikers.

Thacker opposes tolls but is glad to see the money he forks over daily being put to good use.

"If I'm going to pay $4, give me a quality ride," he said.

Toll Plaza Deluxe

Once the new bridge opens, Thacker and other commuters will be paying their money at a toll plaza deluxe, a sort of Tiffany of its kind. The modern-looking complex of metal, glass and concrete will whisk drivers through faster than ever. About the only thing old-fashion is the standard-brand analog clock in each yellow toll booth.

Originally, the plaza had been built with 17 lanes. But even as it sat awaiting opening day, the Bay Area Toll Authority decided to remodel it at a cost of $1.1 million. Workers removed several of the new toll booths in January to make room for the first open-road tolling lanes in the Bay Area.

Motorists with FasTrak transponders will be able to drive through the toll plaza at freeway speeds in two lanes. It will be just like the FasTrak lanes that already exist on Bay Area bridges - except that drivers won't have to slow down to 25 mph.

"That's clearly the wave of the future," BATA spokesman John Goodwin said.

Thacker pays his tolls with FasTrak. He looks forward to being able to use the open tolling lanes.

"That will really speed things up," he said.

The Interchange Backup

Meanwhile, local transportation leaders are trying to prepare for life at the Cordelia interchange once the new bridge opens.

The interchange is already a notorious traffic snare. But the situation improved in 2004, when the state built new lanes and connector ramps near the interchange.

Thacker already sees the old traffic congestion returning. People at times are once again beginning to take to local roads to avoid the interchange, he said.

"Over the last two years, with all the building, there's a lot more people," he said.

Now comes the opening of the new bridge. No longer will traffic be metered by the toll plaza there. Instead, it will flow until it hits the bottleneck of the interchange.

Solano Transportation Authority Executive Director Daryl Halls said interchange backups could be as bad as before the new lanes and connectors got built.

The STA and Caltrans are trying to come up with an answer. Construction on new carpool lanes on I-80 near the Cordelia interchange is expected to begin next year.

In the short run, though, commuters such as Thacker may find their drives easier at the Benicia Bridge and harder once they reach the Cordelia interchange.

Finding a Way to Celebrate

When the original Benicia Bridge opened in September 1962, the state held a celebration. Gov. Pat Brown gave a speech on the ferry M.V. Carquinez.

That original span cost $100 million, or $651 million in today's dollars. Forty-five years later, plans that went before BATA in June to celebrate the opening of the new, $1.2 billion span had a $595,000 pricetag.

Even busing an expected 10,000 people to the event from parking areas would have cost $210,000, more than twice the amount of the original span.

The BATA board turned the celebration down as being too expensive. It will look at a scaled-down proposal on July 11.

When the Al Zampa suspension bridge opened over the Carquinez Strait in 2004, the adjacent town of Crockett played a big role in the celebration. But Benicia and Martinez aren't leading the way for the Benicia Bridge celebration.

"The bridge is in a remote location, while Crockett is right in the shadow of the bridge and the connection between the community and bridge is strong," Goodwin said.

People got to walk the length of the Zampa Bridge that opening day. But that won't be the case with the new Benicia Bridge span, which doesn't end in a park or downtown.

"Just a tangle of freeway ramps, with no way to safely get pedestrians back to civilization," Goodwin said.

But the new bridge is a critical link for a freeway system serving Solano County commuters. People such as Thacker will celebrate its completion by using it and saving time at the new toll plaza.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

New Benicia Bridge facts
The new bridge:
-- Is more than 1.5 miles long and 84 feet wide.
-- Has a span made from a lightweight concrete that was poured in place, as opposed to having sections constructed elsewhere and then hoisted into place.
-- Caused controversy during the early 1990s as Caltrans looked for a location to the east or west of the old span. One proposed location would have destroyed a historic sandstone powder magazine in Benicia.
-- Had its groundbreaking in July 1999. Caltrans at the time predicted the new bridge would be finished by June 2003.
-- Can be fitted for light rail, although there are no plans now for any such system.

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