Out and about around Ashby Avenue over the weekend? Notice anything different?
To some, it may have been just another South Berkeley weekend in November, with the usual hustle of cars and bicycles, trucks and pedestrians. But to others, eyes and ears were attuned to any changes or new twists in traffic, as Saturday marked the threshold from planning for the new fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, to living it.
The fourth bore opened early in the morning of Saturday, Nov. 16; nearly four years after construction began. This major Highway 24 upgrade triggered a law suit against Caltrans by residents of Berkeley and Oakland, claiming the project’s Environmental Impact Report didn’t adequately address potential impacts to neighboring communities.
In a settlement, the city of Berkeley received $2 million for traffic improvements along the Ashby corridor from CA-24 to I-80, also known as Highway 13. Oakland, in a separate settlement, received $9 million.
“We’re shepherding these projects in Berkeley and in Oakland; we work very closely with both cities,” said Ann Smulka, a Berkeley resident, member of the city’s Transportation Commission, and chair of the Caldecott Fourth Bore Coalition, the resident group that filed the lawsuit.
“It’s a march,” Smulka said, in reference to progress on Berkeley’s list of 13 Ashby corridor improvement projects. “I think everyone understands the city has limited staff to devote to these projects. This money doesn’t really have an expiration date. They’ve been working diligently.”
The city wasn’t part of the law suit, but since Caltrans couldn’t grant the money to a neighborhood group, Berkeley agreed to a reimbursement plan to conduct the work.
Located just north of the older three bores, the fourth allows for two dedicated eastbound and two dedicated westbound tunnels where CA-24 cuts through the East Bay hills. Before this, lanes were reconfigured twice daily to direct rush hour traffic through the middle tunnel, westbound in the mornings and eastbound in the afternoons. Each tunnel has two lanes.
Bottlenecks were common at tunnel approaches when four lanes of traffic were forced to merge into two and pass through one tunnel. The main goal of the $417 million project, according to Caltrans, is to end these clogs, streamlining tunnel traffic in both directions at all times of the day. The biggest impact is expected on non-rush hour or off-peak traffic, with the end of the shrinking lanes.
Whipping through the Caldecott will make life easier for many travelers, which is a positive thing, Smulka said. But major traffic projects often have a trickle-down impact on nearby roadways, and after much review and analysis, the coalition, in a different conclusion than Caltrans, found the Ashby-Tunnel Road corridor is likely to see significantly more traffic with the new bore, she said. The corridor is a popular route for accessing CA-24.
“The easier it is to get through the tunnel the more likely it will be for people to make that trip by car. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is sensitive to the need to get places. But if it’s going to increase traffic, then you need to make these improvements to take care of it,” Smulka said.
The coalition worked closely with Berkeley transportation staff on narrowing down a priority project list, which is approved by the transportation commission and the City Council. Another $270,000 from Safeway was added to the project pot, in mitigation funds for traffic impacts from renovations of its store at College and Claremont avenues.
Projects were identified along the entire stretch of the highway. The city started with those closest to the Caldecott and is working its way west.
“I think we’d all love to be further along than we are. But we’re following the guidance we got from the transportation commission and the fourth bore coalition,” said Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s transportation manager.
The work is about halfway done, Javandel estimates. Caltrans approval is required for all Ashby projects because the street is a state highway, and this is time consuming, he said.
“All the projects are through the design phase. We’re preparing the documents to submit to Caltrans for review.”
Time will tell what differences, if any, the fourth bore will have on Bay Area travel, and if Berkeley’s mitigations are having the desired effect.
Javandel, speaking anecdotally, said, “Some people’s behavior may change. If their choices were to take I-80 around the north end, drive through Tilden Park, or give up and take Bart, they may now make a different travel choice.”
On the fourth bore opening Saturday, Smulka, who lives near the tunnel, said she didn’t notice any change. “But I imagine if it were a [Cal] football game, it would be different.”
One Berkeley impact of the project is already proven. The UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology is charged with analyzing ancient-life findings from the tunnel’s big dig, and the results are already fascinating. The toe of a North American camel; the jawbone of an oreodont, an extinct sheep-like mammal; the tooth of an extinct rabbit called Hypolagus; fish scales; crustaceans. All are from the Miocene epoch, 5 to 23 million years ago. For more see the museum’s fourth bore webpage.
Fun fact: The tunnel is named after Thomas E. Caldecott (1878–1951), mayor of Berkeley from 1930–1932, member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors 1933-1945, and president of Joint Highway District 13, which built the first two bores.
Debate over new Tunnel Road bike lane centers on parking (10.16.13)
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