After many months of analysis, and about a decade in development, Caltrans has said the city can move ahead with plans for proposed double-roundabouts in the problematic I-80 and Gilman Street interchange in West Berkeley.
It’s the first time the transportation agency has approved a concept for double-roundabouts in the region, according to city of Berkeley transportation chief Farid Javandel. In early October, Caltrans gave Berkeley staff the green light to move ahead with an environmental review of the project, and the city went public with the news Monday.
Whether the project can actually happen depends on the November election: Funding for the double-roundabouts, along with other significant investments in Berkeley, is part of Measure BB, the county-wide transportation tax. Without approval of that measure, the city won’t be able to proceed. (Scroll down for details.)
Currently, there are eight entry points to the intersection on either side of the freeway. The intersections are controlled by stop signs but drivers are often unsure about who has the right of way. Berkeleyside readers have called the area “a ridiculous mess” and “the most dysfunctional intersection … anywhere in the United States.”
The city has said the intersection “is one of the most problematic in Berkeley. It also generates the most complaints.”
Javandel said that, given the space available in the interchange, between the frontage roads and the exit ramps, traffic signals simply would not have worked. There isn’t enough room for left-turning traffic to queue, which would have led to back-ups for motorists.
The city’s Project Study Report considered the current and future traffic conditions, and physical and environmental constraints of the intersection, and evaluated a range of potential fixes, including traffic signals. Dual roundabouts proved to be the most effective solution.
“With a roundabout, you don’t have to store any traffic at all in the interchange,” he said. “It just flows through.”
Statewide, double-roundabouts can be found to the north near Truckee and to the south near Santa Clarita, but it’s not a solution that’s been used in the greater Bay Area, Javandel said.
“Caltrans establishes the standards and a lot of things are by the book,” he said. “To do something that is unique takes a lot of extra effort. Getting that approval is a good thing.”
The city isn’t just looking at solutions for motorists. Engineers are also hoping to build a bicycle and pedestrian overpass as part of a “complete streets approach,” similar to what can be found near University Avenue on the north side of Aquatic Park.
Caltrans owns the interchange — including Gilman between East and West Frontage — and its approval is needed for any changes there. Berkeleyside wrote about the proposed double-roundabouts last year.
Construction of the project is estimated to cost $9-10 million, as well as another $3.5 million to cover an environmental study, and engineering and design work that would precede construction.
Project can’t happen without Measure BB money
Funding for the project, $24 million, is included in Measure BB, the Alameda County-wide transportation tax measure on the November ballot. (Another $52 million is earmarked for a project at the Ashby Avenue freeway interchange with Interstate 80. Scroll to the bottom of this story to learn more.)
If approved, the measure would create a a 30-year Transportation Expenditure Plan. It would renew the 0.5% transportation sales tax approved in 2000, and increase the tax by 0.5%. This would result in a 1% sales tax in the county dedicated solely to transportation expenses. The tax would expire in 2045 without voter renewal. The revenue from the tax would be controlled by the Alameda County Transportation Commission. A two-thirds supermajority vote is required for the measure to pass.
If Measure BB does not pass, the city will not be able to move ahead with the project. Said Javandel: “There’s no city money for major capital projects like that.”
The county tried to pass a similar measure in 2012 but failed. Javandel said the main difference between the two measures is that the earlier one had no expiration date, which critics said was a cause for concern.
If Measure BB is approved, the city plans to complete the CEQA environmental review for the Gilman Street interchange by 2017. Approval of construction details would come after CEQA approval. Engineering and design is scheduled to be complete by 2018, with groundbreaking in 2019.
Javandel said the city was not surprised by the Caltrans approval, but that it was still a happy occasion. He said last year that the project has been in development for close to a decade.
“It was definitely exciting to hit that milestone and now we know we can move on to the next step,” he said Monday. “It’s such a long process, it’s always good to finish a piece of it.”
Javandel said previously 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.”
Councilwoman Linda Maio, who represents the West Berkeley district that includes Gilman, said improvements to the intersection are critical.
Maio said she’s been working for years to make the project a reality. She said she pushed to have staff study the intersection in the first place, advocated for funding so the city could complete its analysis and, along with Mayor Tom Bates, met with the county transportation commission to make sure money got onto the Measure BB funding list.
“It’s the one thing in my literature that gets the most attention,” she said. “At community meetings, the people who are faint of heart avoid it, and they’ll tell you that. Other people just take a leap of faith and get out there and it’s a crapshoot: You get out there and you fend for yourself.”
She said she’s optimistic that the roundabouts will be the best solution for the interchange, and that the area was studied thoroughly by both the city and Caltrans to make sure they had come up with the best approach.
“There are so many ins and outs that it can’t be regulated by traffic lights. There’s just no other way to do it,” she said, of the roundabouts. “The whole beauty of the roundabouts, which are used extensively in Europe, is that you can take your time to make your decision. If you’re at all feeling confused, you can go around once or twice before you make your decision. It’s the best design that I could actually think of.”
Measure BB projects in Berkeley
From the county’s Transportation Expenditure Plan:
GILMAN INTERCHANGE “The I-80 Gilman project will receive funding to relieve a major bottleneck and safety problem at the I-80 Gilman interchange. The project includes both a major reconfiguration of the interchange and grade separation of the roadway and the railroad crossing which currently crosses Gilman at-grade impeding traffic flow to and from the freeway. Improvements will also be made for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing this location and accessing recreational opportunities west of the freeway, making this a true multimodal improvement.”
ASHBY INTERCHANGE “The Ashby Avenue corridor will receive funding to fully reconstruct the Ashby Avenue Interchange by eliminating the substandard eastbound on-ramp in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. The interchange will be fully accessible to vehicles traveling to and from Emeryville and Berkeley and east and west on I-80,will reduce local traffic congestion in Berkeley and Emeryville, and will improve bicycle and pedestrian access. The project includes associated corridor improvements on Ashby Avenue.”
OTHER MONEY FOR BART, SENIORS, AC TRANSIT Money also has been allocated to two of the city’s BART stations, with $20 million for the downtown Berkeley station, and $18.5 million to Ashby BART. That money could fund capital projects as well as shuttle buses. Those allocations are in addition to other money in the pot to help increase access to transit for seniors in Berkeley — and throughout the county — with mobility issues. In addition, AC Transit is eligible for $25 million for its Bus Rapid Transit project, which is slated to include improvements to service to UC Berkeley.
[Editor’s Note: This story was clarified after publication to explain that Caltrans has approved the city’s plans to go forward with an environmental review of the roundabouts. Approval of construction plans and details are another step in the process after the environmental review is complete.]
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