NBLC Advocates for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Third Lane

Transportation planners are supporting a suite of projects to help ease gridlock over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, but to the dismay of discontented drivers, that won’t, for now, involve opening a third westbound commute lane.

Critics and supporters of the highway expansion effort faced off Wednesday as planners discussed the fate of the bridge’s bicycle and pedestrian path that has come to the end of its four-year trial run.

The Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee said it agreed with a staff recommendation to await the results of a pilot study final report before taking action.

Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, a member of the committee, said it’s a balance between being environmental stewards, cutting emissions and supporting the commuting workforce.

“When they look at a potential third lane, it’s easy to get excited about how that could provide some relief,” he said. “But we also acknowledge that there is a process that we have to go through to make sure that if we do something, it’s done right.”

In the meantime, planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Caltrans will pursue several projects that were cooked up to shave off up to 17 minutes from 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.

The $20 million path opened four years ago this month. The controversial pilot project converted the bridge’s westbound emergency and maintenance lane into a path that is separated from vehicle traffic by a moveable barrier.

Cyclists said the path project has fulfilled a decades-old vision to create the first route connecting the North Bay and East Bay. Critics, including East Bay residents and the Bay Area Council business association, say the path should be opened up to vehicles during the mornings to provide relief to the tens of thousands of commuters stuck in traffic as opposed to a handful of weekday cyclists.

Over the past year, 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.

Transportation planners say that traffic counts are at about 90% of what they were pre-pandemic, but drivers question the figures.

“I appreciate presenting the data but let’s talk about lived experience,” said Lisa Tsering, a resident of El Cerrito.

Tsering said the bicycle faction is well-organized and has many voices. She asked whether bicyclists have sat in their car during a jam on the bridge after a crash.

“The reality of the situation is that bike path is a luxury for the elite,” she said. “Working class people like me need the bridge and we need access to as many lanes as possible.”

A popular proposal is to create another moveable barrier on the eastbound lower deck, which has three lanes open to vehicle traffic. For the morning commutes, cyclists would be diverted onto the lower deck to allow crews to reopen a third westbound lane, with the reverse happening during the afternoon commute in the eastbound direction.

“The people that are stuck in the backup matter, and the perception is that it’s getting worse,” said John Grubb, chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, the business organization pushing the proposal.

Joanne Webster, chief executive officer of the North Bay Leadership Council, said her organization also supports that plan.

“This is not just an environmental issue, this is an equity issue too,” Webster said. “North Bay Leadership Council need barriers removed to help us attract workers from the East Bay.”

Transportation planners said it could cost $70 million to $310 million in improvements to accommodate a third westbound lane. Any such project would require overcoming environmental hurdles lasting several years.

Another argument against the bike path is that the morning commute is leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, creating poorer air quality and affecting the health of Richmond residents.

“To have all of us delayed and sitting in burning fossil fuels so a few rich people can ride across the bridge when they feel like it, and put more junk into the air in Richmond and make me use my inhaler more often, it sucks,” said Mike Martinez, a Richmond resident.

Lisa Klein, field operations and asset management director for the commission, said planners are working with air quality officials to measure the effects of traffic. She said vehicle miles traveled is the main contributor to pollution, and adding a third lane could in fact increase the number of automobiles driving through the corridor.

It’s a fact that bicycle and pedestrian activists have been reporting as well.

“Another traffic lane would increase not decrease pollution, and congestion improvements, if any would likely be short lived,” said Dave Rhoads, chair of Walk/Bike San Rafael, a division of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.

Rhoads said his organization is calling for 24/7 bicycle and pedestrian access.

“The money it would cost to add a lane to the corridor is significant, and importantly, it’s unfunded,” he said. “A more impactful use of the funds would be to improve transit access on the corridor.”

Bruce Dughi of Castro Valley said the comments of elitism bother him. He said he chooses cycling and public transit because it’s more affordable.

“BART, cycling and having these bridges open really expand where people can go in the Bay Area without driving a car,” he said. “Without BART and without this bridge access, we’re severely restricted. Bridges are for bikes not just for cars.”

Sean Camden of Novato said he was happy when the path opened.

“We’ve been adding lanes all over our nation for about 100 years to deal with car congestion and it doesn’t work,” Camden said. “If it did, Los Angeles would be a transportation paradise and who wants to make Marin County more like Los Angeles, right? We need more bike paths.”

The study on the path is expected to be ready for review in the summer of 2024. For now, the path will remain in place, but its fate will ultimately depend on the decision of the toll authority next year.