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Bay Area transportation planners are taking another look at what it would take to open the westbound shoulder of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge for commuter traffic.
The emergency and maintenance lane on the bridge’s upper deck was converted into a bicycle and pedestrian path that is protected by a moveable barrier in 2019 for a four-year trial period.
The controversial path remains open pending a final report that could determine the fate of the test project. Critics, mostly commuters and their employers, say traffic is worse than ever, while supporters maintain the path is a successful multimodal connection between the North Bay and the East Bay.
John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said staffers will be presenting a proposed scope, schedule and cost for preparation of a “design alternatives study” that would include opening the shoulder as a bus and carpool lane during peak hours.
The presentation is expected at the MTC-Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee meeting on March 13.
“More details to come over the next six weeks,” Goodwin said Friday.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” John Grubb, chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, said of the planned proposal. The Bay Area Council is an influential business group that has been advocating for reopening the third lane for commuter traffic.
“Having a project requires a planning process, and what they’ve agreed to do is start that planning process,” Grubb said.
Warren Wells, policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, said his group hopes bicyclists and pedestrians will continue to have access over the bridge.
“We look forward to seeing the results of the design alternatives study,” Wells said, assuming officials authorize staff to move forward with it.
Wells said he expects any new studies to show similar results to a 2021 study that showed the addition of a third lane would require $70 million to $310 million in improvements. However, he said, the potential costs likely have increased.
That study was revisited in a recent report by the Transportation Authority of Marin that detailed what it would take to open the lane. The report was expected to be presented at the TAM board meeting on Jan. 25, but it was tabled because Kevin Carroll, the board member who requested the discussion, was absent.
According to the study, it would cost about $100 million annually to move the barrier twice a day during weekdays to allow vehicular traffic during peak hours. A machine capable of doing the job would cost $1.27 million. The installation of the barrier was $12 million. The cost of removal is unknown.
The report says adding a third westbound lane would reduce travel times by 11 minutes for drivers headed toward northbound Highway 101. However, drivers traveling to southbound Highway 101 would be delayed by three minutes.
The report said it would cost between $70 million to $90 million to reconfigure the western side of the bridge in San Rafael to handle the new traffic flow. Any such projects would require overcoming environmental hurdles lasting several years.
Carroll, a member of the Larkspur City Council, said he’s experienced backups on the bridge himself. He said he didn’t need to wait for the result of the path study to be completed to know how he feels about it.
“My feeling is the sooner it ends, the better,” he said of the pilot path. “What I am hoping to get is, all the elected officials on the board of TAM, how do they feel about it.”
Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, a member of the boards governing the Transportation Authority of Marin and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the main issue is that “when we bring more traffic over the bridge it’s going to get backed up in Marin County and it may actually take people longer to get to work than it does currently.”
“So some improvements are needed in Marin and those improvements cost money,” Moulton-Peters said. “They’re not funded so we are looking at HOV and bus lanes as options, and it’s all under discussion.”
MTC and Caltrans are also pursuing a suite of projects — dubbed “Richmond-San Rafael Forward” — that were conceived to shave up to 17 minutes off the westbound morning commute into Marin County.
One of the projects is to remove the toll booths to make way for open-road tolling and an extended carpool lane at an estimated cost of $24 million. That project is expected to open in the winter of 2026.
Other near-term projects include a $5 million Richmond Parkway interchange, transit improvements and more bicycle infrastructure improvements.
Now, TAM officials say they want to hear about those active projects and new proposals from the regional planners leading the charge. Staffers with MTC and Caltrans are expected to give a report this spring.
Brian Colbert, chair of the TAM board and a member of the San Anselmo Town Council, said officials have to balance the needs of all their constituents. He said he is interested in seeing what planners are doing to address backup in San Rafael, too.
“It’s not just about the bike lane, it’s a full, 360-degree view of what’s going on on the bridge,” he said. “We want to look at the congestion of the corridor and what is the medium and long-term outlook of the bridge.”
An average of 115 cyclists use the path on weekdays and an average of 325 cyclists on the weekends, according to commission. The weekday pedestrian average is 15, while the weekend average is 30.
By comparison, more than 80,000 vehicles cross the 5.5-mile bridge on weekdays. Westbound drivers can experience delays of nearly half an hour during peak commute times.
Bay Area business interests say the traffic is an equity and environmental issue that needs to be addressed.
“There is huge support from employers, commuters and residents from both the East Bay and the North Bay to open the third lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge,” said Joanne Webster, president and chief executive officer of the North Bay Leadership Council. “The four year bike-ped path pilot did not produce the data, nor the mode shift many were hoping for.”