What’s happening with the Gilman Street Interchange?

City staffers say that roundabouts on Gilman Street at I-80 will improve the interchange in several important ways. Image source: City of Berkeley

City staff say roundabouts on Gilman Street at I-80 will improve the interchange in several important ways. This draft design depicts, in white, the roundabouts and roadway that pass under the freeway at ground level. The green lines show the potential alignment of the bike and pedestrian route through the interchange. Image source: City of Berkeley

Earlier this month, after Berkeleyside’s most recent article on Whole Foods coming to Gilman, several readers asked in the comments section about the status of a city project to reconfigure the intersections at Gilman and Interstate 80.

According to a city flier from last fall, the area has become “overwhelmed” due to multiple commercial venues in its vicinity, such as Golden Gate Fields racetrack, Target in Albany, residential neighborhoods in Berkeley and Albany, and major recreational spots such as the Bay Trail and the Gilman Street Fields. Stop signs on highway off-ramps cause back-ups onto the interstate. The right-of-way for motorists “is confusing, leading to conflict and collisions.”

Berkeleyside readers called the area “a ridiculous mess” and “the most dysfunctional intersection I have seen anywhere in the United States.”

Other commenters said they hoped improvements can happen before Whole Foods goes in: “Traffic is already bad enough. Cars go too fast, the homeless push their carts down the middle of the street, and pedestrians don’t bother with cross walks because for the most part there aren’t any.”

Said another: “The city, state and feds need to get their collective act together right now to install a functional rotary at the I-80 Gilman exit with safe bike and pedestrian bypass. Any prospective increase in traffic through that zone — which the Whole Foods project will certainly generate — demands a responsible and immediate solution.”

Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s transportation division manager, said concept design is well under way, but project funding is somewhat uncertain due to the failure of Measure B1 to pass in the fall. (Measure B1 would have doubled the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax and extended it in perpetuity. It was expected to raise about $8 billion in its first 30 years. The measure failed to reach a two-thirds majority by just a few hundred votes.)

The Gilman Street project is estimated to cost about $15.7 million, including environmental approvals, detailed design work, right-of-way acquisition, and the actual construction of the roundabouts, along with a separated bike and pedestrian pathway through the interchange, said Javandel.

The Alameda County Transportation Commission, the official project lead, is in the process of looking for federal funding, because the interstate is part of the federal system.

Javandel said the current proposal includes two roundabouts, one at the east side of the freeway and the other at the west. The roundabouts “would allow traffic to flow more smoothly. Off-ramp traffic would flow, and local street traffic would flow. Nobody would have stop signs.”

He called the roundabouts “the most effective traffic control we could have.”

Javandel said the intersection as it is, with approaches from frontage roads, the freeway and the legs of Gilman, has too many variables for traffic signals to work well. He pointed to the example of the traffic signals at Central Avenue and I-80 in Richmond to show what can go wrong with stop lights: “Traffic through there tends to back up. They get a lot of gridlock there at peak times. If we put in signals here, we would have the same problems as there and probably worse.”

Currently, he said, the county is waiting for Caltrans approval of the concept. As part of the analysis, Caltrans will look at how the intersection would work with signals and with roundabouts. That process is set to wrap up this summer. (See the concept design here.)

Assuming the concept is approved, the next step will include environmental approvals, perhaps taking 18 months, and detailed design plans.

“We’re a few years out, and trying to find funding may be the most challenign part of it to keep the ball rolling,” said Javandel. But he described the interchange as a “major candidate” for funding, and one of the county transportation commission’s high priority projects.

The project has been underway for close to 10 years, Javandel estimated. A federal grant from several years back gave efforts a $1.2 million boost, and the city has pitched in $300,000 to work on the current phase. (That leaves the project about $14.5 million short of its goal.)

Javandel noted that, though many people think of the intersection as dangerous, it’s not, statistically speaking, above the norm.

“It feels uncomfortable, so people are more cautious there,” he said. “But the crash rate given the volume is not beyond the range of what’s normal.”

If something around town has you mystified, write to Berkeleyside at tips@berkeleyside.com (subject line: “Ask Berkeleyside”) and we’ll do our best to track down an answer.

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  • y_p_w

    I use both Gilman at I-80 and Central at I-80 regularly. I know it backs up, but it’s better than vehicles getting T-boned.

  • y_p_w

    Why would you want to go to Target that way?

    I know it’s pain to get back on to the freeway, but there are ways to exit without getting on Gilman.

  • y_p_w

    Central at I-80 is similar. In fact, it has one more direction. Things might back up a bit, but it feels a lot safer than drivers blasting out of stop signs.

  • Mfox327

    That is not the same exact design, because that Truckee intersection does not also have the frontage road and 2nd street roads converging on the highway off ramp at the same point. Nor does that intersection experience anywhere near the volume of traffic that Gilman does on a daily basis.

  • Berkeley

    A lot of that money is spent because various interest groups have insisted on a huge number of environmental and legal hoops before anything is built. It’s a hassle, but it’s also a reason that countries with a lot of rules also suffer far less from natural disasters.

  • y_p_w

    Now that I think of it, one of the reasons why this area is crowded is because of the completely nutty layout at University Ave. If you’re coming in from Berkeley Marina, there’s no way to directly get on to NB I-80, so you might take Frontage Rd to get on at Gilman. If you’re trying to get to Berkeley Marina from SB I-80, the only way off is to go east on University, so you might as well get off at Gilman.

    If they could manage to fix that (might take some eminent domain) it could make things smoother at Gilman.

  • Berkeleyborn

    Sharkey-the use of roundabouts in the US has been in low volume areas with the largest I’ve seen is in Truckee at the 89/80 intersection leading to Tahoe City. That said, there are massive roundabouts, larger than anything proposed on Gilman in Europe and Asia and India. They work well (I’ve used ‘em) but no doubt they would need getting used to for people who feel its their right to drive as quickly as possible without yielding to others. Frankly, I’d park a BPD officer/CHP down there daily for the first 3 months of operation and consider a camera system to record the intersection to determine faults if there is an accident. The other option there is to install a center divder on Gilman through the intersection and under the overpass and force traffice to turn right only at any intersection (no crossing for left turns) and install a turnaround at the west end near the ball fields. But this would require lights and likely push traffic onto the freeway, also doesn’t help people forced to turn towards Berkeley who want to go towards the waterfront….

  • Matt

    You have to have sufficient room for all of the left turn pockets. The problem with Central Ave is that there only room for 3 cars in the left turn pockets, so traffic trying to go left or straight gets stuck. You have to have turn pockets at all signals, and there’s just too many in a short distance for signal timing to have any positive effect. Believe me, if it were simply signal timing, Central would be fixed by now.

  • The_Sharkey

    …no doubt they would need getting used to for people who feel its their
    right to drive as quickly as possible without yielding to others.

    Or maybe also for people who are responsible drivers who just aren’t used to roundabouts.
    Try stepping down off your high horse for a few seconds to realize that figure-8 roundabouts like this in high-volume areas are difficult to navigate for all drivers and stop trying to demonize everyone who isn’t used to them.

  • guest

    here’s another fix: Pressure Albany to install a light at the frontage road & Buchanan and allow traffic leaving Target to go toward Buchanan and turn left towards the freeways so all the traffic doesn’t have to head back to Gilman. Currently you may only make a right turn onto Buchanan. It would also help slow down traffic entering Buchanan from the freeways or heading down Buchanan towards the freeways. I’m sure that would be appreciated by the folks who live and walk in that area.

  • The_Sharkey

    Well, roundabouts work well in low-volume situations where they allow traffic to cruise through an intersection at reduced speed without needing to come to a complete stop.

    They don’t generally work well in situations like the one you’re describing, or in high-volume intersections like the one at Gilman and I-80.

  • Berkeleyborn

    Self comment-upon a closer look, thats what this system doess-eliminate left turns and straight across intersection driving, replacing more or less everything with right turns-it will work much better than the existing system of “sneak out and cut in”

  • http://www.caviarcommunism.com/ West Bezerkeley

    $1.5 MM and 10 years is absurd.

    Austria & Germany have far more regulations and environmental oversight than we have in this country and their highways and interchanges are first class and worthy of a developed first world country.

    We need a massive revision of EIR laws, which have been usurped by anti-development interests as a legal tool to obstruct development

    BTW, putting in traffic circles is not going to make the I-80 overpass at Gilman collapse after an earthquake, so there’s no need to muddy the water on this issue. This has nothing to do with mitigating damage from a future natural disaster.

  • Andrew Doran

    To the Sharkey and all the other people opposed to roundabouts, I don’t understand this argument that regardless of whether they are effective traffiic control features the world over or whether professionals who spend their lives studying this stuff have recommended them, they won’t work here because Berkeley drivers are “notoriously bad” and people are unfamiliar with them. Related is the Sharkey’s refrain that they “are great for low-volume intersections, but not for high volume”. Both are conjectures based on…????? Your own personal experience driving here in Berkeley and elsewhere? Well, I’ve got a bunch of driving experience too, both here and abroad, and I couldn’t disagree with your assessment more. Which of us is right?

    The point is we are both laymen. If there is hard evidence of anything, it’s that non-traffic professionals love to speak about things they have no expertise in with great conviction, and low and behold they are correct far less often than those who study traffic patterns as a profession. cf lower Marin.

    Can we agree that the intersection sucks? And if so, why can’t we let the guys who get paid to find good solutions, try out their solution? Sure they might get it wrong, and that’s a lot of money to spend to get it wrong, but ANY solution has that same risk. I’d rather put my trust in purported professionals (maybe get some second opinions even) than decide by some sort of engineering by direct democracy. Talk about a guarantee of too many cooks spoiling the broth!

  • Mark L.

    Interesting. Some actual thinking going on here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sandee.dennisglanz Sandee Dennis Glanz

    This is the most dangerous intersection in the entire east bay and i’m glad to hear they are finally doing something about it. I look forward to having a better system in place.

  • EBGuy

    Jerry Brown, after his tenure as Oakland mayor, realizes that CEQA can be used as a weapon by obstructionists. He appears committed to reform; hopefully we’ll see something before he leaves his office. I put some pithy quotes from him on the

    1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley thread.

  • http://www.caviarcommunism.com/ West Bezerkeley

    Fingers crossed that our Governor can push through change.

    People can say what they will about him, but Jerry Brown is a politician that learned from his first time in the Governor’s office as well as his time in Oakland. He is one of the most practical politicians our state has seen in years.

  • Peter Moore

    My understanding is that the roundabout at the Arc du Triumph in Paris is considered a no-fault zone for accidents. It’s quite exhilarating

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    the problem is if it doesn’t work we are stuck with it…similar to Marin, when it showed no improvement they said there was no money in the budget to change it back.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    if there ever was a bad accident in the roundabout it would block traffic for hours with no way to go around…then what? everyone get out of their cars and sing cum-by-ya?

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    I blurt that term out quite a bit around these parts…all while shaking my head.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    it’s all about timing the lights correctly

  • FiatSlug

    It’s really very simple…

    There needs to be a wholesale reconfiguration of that mess that is called an interchange.

    Start with the basic concept that there are no on-ramps or off-ramps and re-design the interchange with the idea that we’re going to decide how best to place on-ramps and off-ramps. You can change the location of the roadway for the West and East Frontage Roads as it approaches Gilman Street, but Gilman Street stays where it is, and the freeway stays where it is.

    Start with a stripped down blank slate and re-configure the interchange.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.corsonknowles David Corson-Knowles

    Oh yeah. That intersection is totally messed up. I hope they have the good sense not to overlay stop signs on top of the roundabout and use yield signs instead.

  • Captain

    OK, this is where I’ve been working the last 6 years, and I’m telling you, that intersection weird while in a major megololopadis without lights, and it has blown my rational mind. When I first got there, I thought this would be mega-deaths, and THEN, they’d put up lights. But, what I’ve come to realize, over the last 5.5. years, is that all normal humans, which I hereby claim I am to be one of, is that all of us are naturally really stupid and idiotic, but, I am telling you; over those last 6 I’ve never seen one minor bump!; as far as hearing about one; maybe twice. I think less The gotdammed thing is working. That fucking officially weird intersection must continue as is. Reason? Above, and the trouble to get money for that huge mountain. Uh,,,duh, schools?????

  • Adrian

    I am from the UK, where we have many frightening-looking roundabouts, big and small (see “Magic Roundabout (Swindon)” for example), and I think they work very well in the UK. However, my experience of them in Berkeley is different, and I believe there are two reasons for this; first roundabouts often have crosswalks at their exits making cars stop in the roundabout; second, cars in the roundabout yield to traffic entering. Both are compatible with US traffic laws, and both make the roundabout seize with traffic in anything other than low traffic flow. In this new I80/Gilman scheme the designers have dealt with the first problem by routing pedestrians away from the road, but not the second problem. In fact, I wonder if the section of road between the roundabouts, under the freeway, would quickly backup. I appreciate I am an armchair road designer, but where is an example of this dog-bone type interchange in operation?

  • Bill N

    Of course at the rate the city and state are going half of the posters will be dead and gone by the time the intersection is “fixed” and won;t have to worry about whether it’s a roundabout or stop lights or nothing changed.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Javandel noted that, though many people think of the intersection as dangerous, it’s not, statistically speaking, above the norm.

    “It feels uncomfortable, so people are more cautious there,” he said. “But the crash rate given the volume is not beyond the range of what’s normal.”

    Javandel neglects to consider that many of us avoid the intersection entirely because we KNOW that it is dangerous.

  • after_eight

    so many people afraid of change. it’s ok people, just look left and proceed right if its clear. if you can’t do that, please stop driving.

  • Berkeleyborn

    High horse, cute mr sharks, coming from the guy who has nothing better to do than blow his own opinions 24 hours a day on Berkeleyside. Tell me, how long have you lived In Berkeley? In reading your posts, it’s clear you know some things about the town, but hardly have an insiders knowledge as to how things actually operate in this city..now whine and flag my post so it goes away and you can continue your personal domination of the comment section……

  • Guest

    It strikes me that there’s a much simpler solution:

    On the east side of the freeway:
    1) Block off the East Frontage Road on both sides of Gilman
    2) Install a new stoplight at Gilman and Second Street
    3) Divert traffic from the East Frontage Road to Camelia, Second (across Gilman), and Harrison.
    4) Install a new stoplight at the base of the eastbound I-80 entrance/exit ramps.
    5) (optionally) Spend the bulk of the money on this project grade-separating Gilman and the railroad tracks

    On the west side of the freeway:
    1) Block off the West Frontage Road on the south side of Gilman
    2) Divert traffic to the west of the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex, connecting back in at the Buchannan Street Extension. This route appears to be paved already, even.
    3) Install a new stoplight at the base of the westbound I-80 entrance/exit ramps.

    There would obviously need to be some coordination of timing between the 3 new stoplights, but they’d be far enough apart that that should be doable….

  • Andrew Doran

    I disagree. Marin is WAY better. You can drive past people making left turns at random little streets because they have dedicated lanes. This is a HUGE improvement.

  • The_Sharkey

    Personal experience, plus information from reading traffic studies and news articles about roundabouts here in the USA. Google around a bit and you can find some pretty interesting information. I don’t have the links handy, but what I found seemed to be a pretty even split between pro and con, with most information supporting them relating primarily to low-volume roundabouts and roundabouts in semi-rural areas.

    I completely agree that the intersection sucks and that any change would be an improvement. I think I’ve said that in this discussion a couple times. But I don’t particularly trust the “professionals” to solve this problem because “professionals” are the ones who created this god-awful intersection in the first place.

  • The_Sharkey

    It’s not me I’m worried about.

  • an observant citizen

    While I am not a traffic engineer, in my estimation as a frequent user, there are a couple of very simple common-sense actions which could be done to improve the situation during the interminable wait for something “real” to be done. 1) reopen the street running by the recycling center to two-way traffic and 2) install signage on the freeway directing Target users to use the next exit and install street posts or “bumps” which prohibit cars going to Target from exiting the freeway on Gilman and darting at an angle across to the Frontage Road heading north to Target.

  • Another Berkeleyan

    This is such a bizarre conversation. If the facts say that the intersection has no more accidents for its given volume than any other intersection, then it is not objectively dangerous. It just feels dangerous. And guess what? That ‘dangerous’ feeling is good. It brings us to high alert, it makes us proceed with caution, and overall the accident rate is not, “statistically speaking, above the norm”. Just because something feels dangerous doesn’t mean it is.

    Forward thinking traffic planners sometimes remove all signs at tricky intersections, creating that feeling of danger. In many cases, the accident rate goes down. See Hans Monderman:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Monderman

  • The_Sharkey

    1.) Yesterday a couple posters were complaining that I hadn’t commented on anything in a while. Today you bitch about me posting too much. Just can’t please everybody I guess.

    2.) I’ve lived in Berkeley for just over ten years. Not sure what that has to do with roundabouts, though. Care to enlighten me?

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    you could before by just changing lanes

  • PragmaticProgressive

    My point is that, having felt uncomfortable at Gilman, I and others avoid the place, reducing the volume of traffic there, increasing it elsewhere and consequently altering the metrics to whose authority you now refer.

  • Skeptic

    Am I the only person who noticed that the main pusher of the changes to CEQA in the legislature just quit to take a job lobbying for Chevron, Inc.? What does that tell you about who’s actually trying to gut our environmental protections? Don’t be fooled by the corporate interests.

  • northhills

    i’ve lived and driven in berkeley since the 60s, and i navigate the Arlington circle roundabout daily. it’s been there for years, and still people are clueless about how to drive in and out of it. what’s so difficult? use your eyes and your brain and figure out when it’s your turn, then go. it doesn’t help that some of the incoming traffic has stop signs (where NO one stops) and yield signs, where people don’t yield much. there needs to be some consistency and some observation of this mess by the traffic planners. this should work a lot better than it does.

  • northhills

    good analysis. cars enter the circle and have no idea whether they should stick to the center and suddenly cut across to exit or hug the outside. and those who feel entitled to be the first in and out try to hit everybody attempting to enter. pretty challenging, especially to all our lousy (and often elderly) Berkeley drivers.

  • Berkeleyborn

    Your #1 is a clear sign you should take a vacation from posting, it’s getting under your skin. #2, yes, probably not critical for roundabouts, though that intersection has been a problem since at least 1975 and probably since the interstate was installed. I don’t know why highway 13 (Ashby) and this intersection have languished, but I’m guessing there is a bigger story with federal funding and Berkeley a few generations back when the interstate system was built, or poor traffic flow analysis-there’s a phd for someone, digging up tose old docs. A smart choice Berkeley did make was paying to put BART underground. Albany, el cerrittito, and oakland chose not to, which is why the concrete tracks cut through neighborhoods…

  • The_Sharkey

    What’s getting under my skin? You making goofy comments stating that anyone who has trouble with roundabouts is someone “who feel its their right to drive as quickly as possible without yielding to others.” and then pitching a fit when you get called out on it? Not really. If anyone’s taking this personally it’s you.

    I totally agree that this interchange is a real problem. Even in the relatively short time I’ve been living here I’ve learned to avoid it whenever possible. I’m not totally against roundabouts, I just don’t 100% trust the cheery optimism of the professed “experts” on this issue since the “experts” are the ones who set up this intersection in the first place, and the “experts” also continue to champion features like Berkeley’s traffic circles which are more confusing and less effective than 4-way stops.

    But you’re also probably right about this intersection seeming “not so bad” when it was first built, when traffic was probably much lighter in that area. From what I’ve gathered REI, the North Face Outlet, Target, and any of the cutesy shops in the area are all younger than the intersection, and when it was built it probably only saw commute traffic to factories and a small amount of traffic to the valet entrance of Golden Gate Fields.

    In a case like this were we have one shot at improving this thing, I don’t want to see a single option and hear that it’s the “best possible solution!!!” without hearing what else they considered. I want to see Option 1, Option 2, and Option 3 along with an explanation of why they think Option 1 is the best solution for the problem.

  • The_Sharkey

    CEQA is bad for everyone. If changing CEQA to help mom & pop businesses and making local governments more nimble inadvertently also helps big corporations I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

  • http://www.caviarcommunism.com/ West Bezerkeley

    Don’t be fooled yourself. Life isn’t as clear cut as you’d like everyone to believe. Liars reside on both sides of this issue.

  • peteena

    The experts who created the current situatiin did so decades ago when the flow pattern were much different ans traffic flow tjeory was different. It’s mot their fault that in the enauing years we decided we’ rather do anything than devote money to maintaining and improving our infrastructure. That’s why it is rhe mess it is today.

  • Diana W.

    Mr. Javandel states that “although many people think the intersection is dangerous, it is not statistically above the norm.” Where is Mr. Javandel getting his statistics, I wonder, because there aren’t any that are accurate. When is the last time you saw a police car come to an automobile accident in the Gilman interchange and then file a report? My car has been rear-ended twice in the Gilman interchange in a two-year period from 2008-2010. The police did not come either time. Those of us who use this interchange frequently could make a good case for the urgent prioritization of a construction upgrade for this interchange, using federal and state money, on the basis that it is VERY DANGEROUS and that there are no accurate statistics on accidents in the interchange because police do not respond to these accidents. City of Berkeley employees–take action NOW to obtain federal and state funds. Too many years and too many accidents have gone by and we all hear the same list of reasons to procrastinate from City of Berkeley employees, with no real action. And, by the way, where is the Mayor, Tom Bates?

  • Mr. Snarky

    Yea, about time. Another example of a traffic light cluster frack is the Emeryville Shellmound and I-80 ‘Interchange’? Just curious how much $$$ it costs just to run those dozen or so lights and the gas wasted idling waiting for your light to change