Marin’s representative in the state Assembly has authored a bill calling for transportation agencies to consider reopening a third westbound lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge during the weekday morning commute.
The bill introduced by Damon Connolly, a Democrat from San Rafael, also requests that the California Department of Transportation and the Bay Area Toll Authority evaluate adding an eastbound moveable barrier so that a bicycle and pedestrian lane can be maintained at all times.
The proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 1464, passed with unanimous, bipartisan support out of the Assembly Transportation Committee with 15 votes on Monday. It is now in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.
“Anyone who lives in the Bay Area, particularly in the East and North Bay, knows how bad the traffic has gotten on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge,” said Connolly in a statement. “This traffic jam doesn’t just slow commutes, it backs up local streets and roads in the City of Richmond, impacting many local families residing in traditionally disadvantaged communities.”
The bill would not require a project to be undertaken; current law prohibits the Legislature from enacting legislation that contains specific individual transportation projects. It does, however, lay out a case for reopening a third westbound lane during the morning commute.
The bill states that traffic on the East Bay approach of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge has steadily worsened, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the legislation, each workday during the morning commute, approximately 18,000 Bay Area residents cross the bridge and during the peak hour, on average, they face an added 16 minutes of gridlocked, stop-and-go traffic.
According to air monitors, the freeway backup during weekday morning commutes has become the largest source of non-wildfire air pollution in the city of Richmond, exceeding emissions from the local oil refinery.
“Richmond residents in low income neighborhoods, primarily people of color, should not have to bear the burden of air pollution from a jammed freeway, especially when the side of Marin County has already received infrastructural relief,” said Joe Fisher, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Council, in a statement.
“A lot of these people stuck in traffic are trying to get to jobs in Marin,” Fisher said. “Opening the third lane will help my community, and Assemblymember Connolly has proposed a great way to get that done, so we all can share the bridge and get rid of the traffic.”
When the bridge opened in 1956, it had three lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction. During the 1970s, however, one westbound lane was temporarily closed to allow for a pipeline to transport water to drought-stricken Marin. After the aqueduct was removed in 1978, the third lanes on both the eastbound lower deck and westbound upper deck were used for Caltrans maintenance.
In 2018, a third eastbound lane on the bridge was reopened at a cost of $74 million after BATA and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission declared that the Marin County side of the bridge had reached “unacceptable levels of service.” The new lane has eliminated afternoon congestion on eastbound I-580 onto the bridge, saving drivers approximately 15 minutes daily on their 7-mile trip from Marin to Contra Costa County.
In 2019, several Bay Area transportation agencies collaborated to convert the bridge’s third westbound lane into the “Richmond-San Rafael Trail,” a bike and pedestrian path.
According to an analysis of the bill for the Assembly Committee on Transportation, 50 to 75 cyclists use the bike path on weekdays and between 150 and 300 on weekend days. Less than 25 pedestrians use the path daily.
In addition to making the lane unavailable to motor vehicles, the change meant that stalled vehicles or vehicles damaged in minor accidents could no longer be easily removed from lanes.
“We have supported the idea of a third rush-hour westbound lane for several years,” said Rollie Katz, executive director of the Marin Association of Public Employees. “Many of our members drive across the bridge as part of their daily commute. The difference between their return trip when the third eastbound lane is open and their morning commute is dramatic. ”
Katz recalled a county employee who lives in El Sobrante telling him that she typically left her home to drive to work two hours before her shift started to ensure she wouldn’t arrive late.
“I’m sure that all our members who commute across the bridge have to allow extra time during their morning commute to play it safe,” Katz said.
Marin County Assistant Administrator Dan Eilerman wrote in an email, “Employers in Marin, including the county of Marin, have suffered commute delays on or around the bridge for some time – unfortunately with disproportionate impacts to traditionally disadvantaged communities.”
According to Connolly, 63% of morning commuters on the bridge are people of color. Sixty-nine percent of them lack a college degree, and the majority of commuters, 60%, make less than the median income in the San Francisco Bay area.
“North Bay Leadership Council employers need barriers removed to help us attract workers from the East Bay to work in Marin and Sonoma Counties, many of whom are essential workers which are in short supply in the North Bay,” wrote Cynthia Murray, the executive director of the North Bay Leadership Council, in an email.
“We have written several letters of support for this project,” added Murray, a former Marin County supervisor, “and are hopeful that it is approved and implemented as relief is needed now.”
John Grubb, chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, said in a statement, “Assemblymember Connolly has proposed a common sense and innovative solution to help solve the epic Richmond Bridge back up.”
Warren Wells, policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, wrote in an email that the coalition supports Connolly’s commitment to maintaining bicycle and pedestrian access on the bridge.
Wells, however, added that the coalition “agrees with the academic consensus, cited in the official analysis of the bill, that adding lanes to crowded freeways will not result in lasting congestion reduction.
“The hundreds of millions of dollars that would be spent on such a project should be invested in transit and other clean transportation infrastructure,” Wells wrote, “rather than an effort that will only increase greenhouse gas emissions.”