Once upon a time, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was so lightly traveled that it was no big deal to give up a traffic lane — going from three lanes to two.

That happened back in 1977, when Marin County’s water supply was dwindling amid one of California’s worst droughts. The emergency solution: a pipeline across the bridge to carry water from the East Bay to thirsty Marinites.

The pipeline was routed across the right lane on the bridge’s upper westbound deck. Although the pipeline was used for less than a year and was removed in 1982, the lane it took over was never restored for vehicular traffic, serving instead as a shoulder lane. In 1980, the lower eastbound deck was also reduced to two traffic lanes, with the rightmost lane converted to a breakdown lane.

An August 1980 news item announced Caltrans’ plans to close an eastbound lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The work was expected to take two weeks and cost $15,000. (Petaluma Argus-Courier via Newspapers.com)

Now, those long-ago lane reductions are about to be reversed.

In part, that’s because the Interstate 580 corridor across the bridge has joined most of the rest of the Bay Area in traffic congestion hell. And in part, it’s because of a long-held dream to give cyclists and pedestrians access to the span.

The first phase of the project involves the reopening of the “lost” lower-deck lane. Sometime before the end of April, and perhaps sooner, drivers will have access to a third eastbound bridge lane weekday afternoons from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The lane restoration project was approved in 2015 and started in January 2017. It has involved significant — and costly — road and lane realignments on both ends of the bridge. For instance, accommodating a third lane on the Richmond end of the bridge required demolishing a massive retaining wall, excavating the adjacent hillside and building a new wall. Part of that work was necessary to build a second exit lane to Richmond Parkway, a busy connector to Interstate 80. The project has also required installation of new electric signs on the lower deck to alert drivers when the new lane is available.

The total for this part of the project: about $37 million. The cash comes from toll revenue administered by the Bay Area Toll Authority, which operates the region’s seven state-owned spans.

The project’s second phase is to put a bike-pedestrian lane in the upper deck’s right lane. One rationale for the facility, beyond it being a new venue for cyclists and walkers to take in a spectacular view, is that it would close a key link in the Bay Trail. The planned 500-mile cycling and walking route around the bay has been in development since 1989.

The bike-pedestrian path would feature a movable barrier similar to the one used on the Golden Gate Bridge. BATA approved construction funding last month, and the path is expected to open in early 2019. The cost for this part of the project: $25 million, also from bridge tolls.

Both the eastbound and westbound lane initiatives were approved as four-year pilot projects undertaken in conjunction with Caltrans, the Contra Costa Transit Authority and the Transportation Authority of Marin.

The eastbound commute lane will be assessed for its effectiveness in easing the rotten afternoon traffic from Marin to Contra Costa. The westbound bike-pedestrian path will be watched closely for the amount of usage it gets.

Recently, officials in both Marin and Contra Costa have argued that because the westbound morning commute across the bridge is snarled, they want the restored upper-deck lane to be used for cars part of the time — during rush hours, perhaps, or throughout the week, with bikes getting access during off-hours and/or on weekends.

However, both transportation officials and bike advocates say that allowing cars to use the new lane would be complicated by several factors — some regulatory, some practical.

The regulatory: The bridge projects required environmental studies and signoff from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission; making it likely that mixed use on the upper-deck lane would require a new study and new approvals. The practical: Opening a third lane to westbound traffic would likely move the existing congestion a little way down the road, into San Rafael, because of: a) I-580’s two-lane configuration as it heads up to U.S. 101, and b) the need to re-engineer or improve existing ramps and surface capacity west of the bridge.

However, after formal requests from Marin and Contra Costa officials, the toll authority and Metropolitan Transportation Commission have agreed to conduct a study on restoring vehicular traffic to a third upper-deck lane.

Restoring a Lane on Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Ease a Commute Headache 7 February,2018Dan Brekke

  • crazyvag

    And then there’s the whole “induced demand” problem. Does 101 and 80 have the extra capacity for an extra lane worth of traffic?

  • David

    Requiring an environmental review to restore a third lane of traffic on a structure that originally had three lanes: Why it’s so expensive and takes so long to do anything in California.

    • Funny no one was interested until it was pitched as a cycling/pedestrial project, though…

  • xplosneer

    The cost of restudying something incompatible with what was already agreed to, which could go to other improvements. Great job everyone.

  • Like to see some credible numbers about the number of people who actually want to ride a bike or walk across this bridge.

    • Ziggy Tomcich

      That’s not possible and that’s not how biking works. Demand is induced after safe bicycle routes are built. There’s no way to accurately predict exactly how many people will choose to bike across the bridge, or jog it because there are many more variables out there that will ultimately determine its use. The reason this is being built is because it’s a key part of the Bay Trail which has been planned and for decades. Cutting this bike lane and making it part time doesn’t affect just this span but it affects the entire bay trail. Given how long this has been studied, putting a moving wall and closing the bike lane during commute hours is really killing the entire project. Whatever the ridership ultimate ends up being for the bike lane, I’m pretty certain that closing it during commute hours would result in a magnitude fewer riders.

      • Since traffic has increased on the bridge in the last few years, surely the question of how many cyclists would actually use the lane is crucial and should have been addressed a long time ago. If few cyclists are going to use the lane, it makes no sense.

        • Ziggy Tomcich

          The point with all infrastructure including roads and highways is the concept of induced demand. Historically most all projections of ridership for any infrastructure are about as statistically accurate as asking a magic 8-ball. That’s because most of these projects will be around for several decades, well beyond our best stastical modeling. Voodoo projection numbers shouldn’t be used to go ahead or halt infrastructure projects that will out last most of our lifetimes.

          What should be the driving determination on such projects is creating complete transportation systems that will be usable for generations. The Bay Trail has been planned for decades, and it involved every city all around the bay. Cities all around the bay have agreed to fund and build this because they understand that the value of a complete bay trail well exceeds the summed individual costs of each of the trail’s segments.

  • This seems like an objective statement of the issue, but Streetsblog accuses KQED of supporting “stealing a lane” from bikes!
    (Trying to reframe the debate, KQED pushes to “restore” a bridge lane—basically stealing it from bikes—to “ease a traffic headache” (which won’t work)

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Keep a bike lane open only part-time? What a boneheaded idea! No one is going to risk riding a bike that far only to have the bike lane closed and be left completely stranded right as you get to the bridge. The bike lane is part of the bay trail which has been planned, studied and negotiated for decades. Yes there should be a safe way for people to bike between Richmond and San Rafael at all hours, not just weekends and evenings. It’s not as if that extra lane can actually help traffic, it will only move it and create a bottleneck at the end of the bridge.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED’s comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

Twitter: twitter.com/danbrekke
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