Monday, September 24, 2007

Benicia Bridge Makes Commuting A Breeze

Benicia Bridge Makes Commuting A Breeze
By Barry Eberling

Doug Burke of Suisun City has enjoyed zipping through the new FasTrak toll booths on the new $1.2 billion Benicia Bridge. (Brad Zweerink/Daily Republic)

FAIRFIELD - Doug Burke is among the local Interstate 680 commuters who give the new $1.2 billion Benicia Bridge and its high-tech toll plaza rave reviews.

"Since it's opened, I have experienced no delays at all," the Suisun City resident said. "It's a dream going across the Benicia Bridge."

Crossing the Benicia Bridge during evening rush hour used to be a nightmare for commuters heading from Contra Costa County to Solano County. Traffic sometimes backed up for several miles.

But the new span, open for about a month, exclusively serves northbound drivers. The 1962 span no longer serves drivers going in both directions, but only those heading south.

Those extra lanes have made a difference.

"That's a real nice commute now," said Burke, who does sales work across Contra Costa County. "It's really sweet."

Vacaville resident Cori Zimmerman works in Walnut Creek. She usually reaches the new bridge during her return commute at 3:20 p.m.

No longer does she lose time waiting in a long line of cars and trucks at the bridge. What was a 75-minute trip home is now some 20 to 30 minutes shorter, depending on the day.

"I just love the new bridge," Zimmerman said.

Gilda Laforga-Graham of Suisun City makes the evening commute from Concord a couple of hours later than Zimmerman. She can now complete her trip home in about 40 minutes, compared to about 75 minutes before the new bridge opened.

The new Benicia Bridge also has the first toll plaza on Bay Area bridges that records FasTrak drivers moving at freeway speeds. At other bridges, FasTrak drivers must slow to about 25 mph.

FasTrak is a system that uses transponders in the commuter's vehicle. The toll is automatically deducted from a prepaid account. On the Benicia Bridge, that electronic deal is made at 55 mph and faster.

"Zip through, no waiting," Burke said.

The complaints have nothing to do with the bridge itself, but with other drivers near the toll plaza. Some stay in the FasTrak-only lanes until the last minute, then cut to the slower-moving cash lanes, either from confusion or in an attempt to save a little time. Both Laforga-Graham and Zimmerman have seen this happen.

"I almost got hit," Laforga-Graham said.

Building the new bridge proved difficult. Workers discovered vibrations from driving dozens of steel piles into the ground beneath the Carquinez Strait ruptured the swim bladders of fish. Caltrans solved the problem by putting a screen of bubbles around the piles to deaden the vibrations, but that took time and money.

Although the bridge was several years overdue and doubled in price since 2000 estimates, the results seem to be worth it to commuters.

"A-pluses for Caltrans and the workers out there," Burke said.

If the new Benicia Bridge gets cheers, the Cordelia interchange and Interstate 80 some 12 miles down the road get the same old raspberries. People driving from Contra Costa County to central Solano County still hit these familiar bottlenecks.

"That's where they're probably going to have to take another look," Zimmerman said. "Everybody funnels over the bridge faster, so they get to the 80-680 (interchange) faster."

Local transportation leaders feared that by eliminating the Benicia Bridge bottleneck, congestion would worsen at the next bottleneck on the freeway - the Cordelia interchange. That seems to have happened, if only to some extent.

"Friday, it's really ugly, but it was ugly before on Fridays as well," Burke said. "I haven't noticed that much of a difference. There's maybe a little more traffic there, but I can't say it's profoundly worse. It's always been a pain in the neck."

Laforga-Graham finds there are good days and bad days.

"We need to do something about the interstates 680-80 merge," she said.

County Supervisor Jim Spering sits on both the Solano Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He has also seen congestion at the interchange since the new bridge opening, but no huge increase.

"It's not backed up initially like we predicted," he said.

Spering sees more traffic on I-80 near the interchange, with all of the traffic weaving in from I-680. And he predicted it will just be a matter of time until the Cordelia interchange backup on Interstate 680 worsens.

Fixing the interchange could cost as much as the new Benicia Bridge span, more than $1 billion. Spering said the project could be 10 to 15 years away.

Meanwhile, the new Benicia Bridge span is playing havoc with Burke's global positioning satellite map system. The system doesn't yet know the span exists. It shows Burke as driving through the waters of the Carquinez Strait.

But it shows him making the watery journey at a fast clip, instead of waiting in traffic.

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

Reader e-mails on the Bencia Bridge

"Not having to putt up to the toll plaza and being able to whiz by at the legal speed limit has improved the commute 100 percent."
- Patricia Cooper, Fairfield-Suisun Transit System bus commuter

"I commute via vanpool from Fairfield to Pleasanton every day and I am now very happy that the bridge is finally open. It has knocked at least 15 to 20 minutes off of our commute time in the afternoon (which takes two hours on most days)."
- Susan Patterson

"The engineers and designers really thought this one out. It was money well spent. The new FasTrak lanes make the bridge crossing effortless."
- Pamela Norton

"The new bridge has definitely improved the traffic in Martinez along 680. I used to go through the refineries to avoid the 680 as long as possible, getting on the freeway at the last entrance. Now, that way slows me down."
- Karen Churchill

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