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All Backed Up: Plans to widen San Pablo Dam Road interchange stuck in neutral

on October 16, 2009

The original plan was to widen one confusing and congested interchange off Interstate 80, San Pablo Dam Road, at a cost of $30 million in 2006.

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Click on map for construction details.

Now it’s not so simple. The current plan involves two other interchanges – El Portal to the north, which would move, and McBryde Avenue to the south, which would close. The cost of the project has ballooned to $114 million, with an $87 million shortfall. Construction can’t begin until 2012 at the earliest.

And still, the same problems for this long-discussed project – talked about for more than a decade – remain. They include rush-hour congestion, poor pedestrian and bicycle access, and confusing and sometimes dangerous freeway entrances and exits.

Drivers are all too familiar with what’s wrong with the Dam Road.

“It’s ridiculous. There’s just too much going on,” said Vanessa Brown of Oakland as she got into her car parked in a shopping plaza off the Dam Road. Brown said she often gets stuck watching the stoplight change when driving westbound from a friend’s home in El Sobrante.

“Morning times, there’s a long line (of cars coming from El Sobrante),” said Brown, 47. “It’s a mess right there.”

The area is going to stay a mess for at least the next couple of years.

A sign informs drivers to expect delays along the Dam Road.

A sign informs drivers to expect delays along the Dam Road.

Hisham Noeimi, project manager for the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, said the plan is for construction to begin between 2012 and 2015, but “nothing is really final until you get the funding.” Once all the funding is secured, he said, it will take three years before construction can start.

Noeimi said that although proposals to widen the Dam Road have been discussed for years, no progress was made until $30 million became available in 2006. Before construction could begin, though, Caltrans ruled that the other two interchanges had to be addressed as well.

The close proximity of McBryde and El Portal to the Dam Road causes the area to operate at a failing level of service, according to Caltrans, with “vehicle weaving distance” (the distance between two ramps where vehicles getting on and off the freeway must merge) less than the standard of 1,600 feet and delays at stoplights lasting more than 80 seconds. Caltrans ruled that all three interchanges had to be reconstructed.

The CCTA is partnering with the City of San Pablo and the California Department of Transportation on the current plan. They maintain it’s a high-priority project and are hoping to finish up the environmental impact phase this year.

Here are the details on the three interchanges affected by the project: San Pablo Dam Raod, McBryde Avenue and El Portal Drive:

SAN PABLO DAM ROAD: The goal: reduce congestion at the Dam Road interchange while improving accessibility for cyclists and pedestrians.

Traffic backs up in both directions at the Dam Road and will only get worse, according to Caltrans, which projects that 50 percent more vehicles per

The intersection where Amador Street, San Pablo Dam Road and the I-80 eastbound onramp meet.

The intersection where Amador Street, San Pablo Dam Road and the I-80 eastbound onramp meet.

day will use the interchange by 2035.

The interchange is a trouble spot for cyclists. The Dam Road leads to popular cycling roads in area parks, like Tilden and Briones, yet it has no bike lanes. Cyclists heading west on the Dam Road can’t turn left onto Amador Street, which runs parallel to I-80, because there is no turn lane. They either must make a dangerous illegal turn against traffic and in front of vehicles getting on the freeway, or head down to San Pablo Avenue.

Pierre LaPlant of Richmond, historian for the Grizzly Peak Cyclists, said that though taking the Dam Road would ease his trip to Briones, he avoids the busy intersection.

To fix the problems, two proposals for the Dam Road are being considered. In both options, turn lanes and a second lane for the westbound exit would be added, sidewalks widened, a bike lane added, and the pedestrian access bridge replaced and moved closer to the Dam Road. The current four-lane overcrossing would be replaced with a six- or seven-lane bridge.

McBRYDE AVENUE: The only interchange located inside Richmond city limits affected by the project– McBryde – would close. A frontage road connecting San Pablo Dam Road with McBryde on the south side of I-80 would take its place.

McBryde serves only as an off-ramp for westbound vehicles. Caltrans project manager Laura Hameister said the current standard for the Federal Highway Administration is to have both an off-ramp and onramp at an interchange.

Eastbound morning rush hour traffic backs up along San Pablo Dam Road.

Eastbound morning rush hour traffic backs up along San Pablo Dam Road.

More problematic is that McBryde is too close to San Pablo Dam Road, she said.

Vehicles attempting to exit at McBryde have to weave through vehicles getting on I-80 at San Pablo Dam Road. The distance between McBryde and the Dam Road is 970 feet, far below the 1,600-foot recommended length.

According to the Caltrans Initial Study document, building a new frontage road would require the removal of several homes and an apartment building in San Pablo.

EL PORTAL DRIVE: The westbound on-ramp would move north. A full interchange would be constructed at the new location, and the new onramp would connect to the Dam Road by an auxiliary lane.

The Initial Study document also notes that homes in the area, on the east side of Humboldt Street, would be removed. Soundwalls would be added near El Portal Drive and Humboldt Street.


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