Richmond coalition presents solutions to bridge congestion and pollution

Richmond coalition presents solutions to westbound congestion on Richmond San Rafael Bridge
Richmond community leaders join elected officials at Point Molate Beach Park in calling for solutions to westbound traffic on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Monday, July 17. (Photo credit: Mike Aldax)

Transit officials are hearing growing calls to alleviate traffic congestion on the westbound span of the San Rafael Richmond Bridge, but the solutions being proposed do not involve eliminating bike access.

On Monday, a coalition consisting of Richmond community leaders and elected officials gathered at Point Molate Beach Park to call upon Caltrans and regional transportation officials to use voter approved bridge toll funding (Regional Measure 3) on a project meant to ease westbound congestion and reduce pollution caused by cars idling along I-580.

The solution involves installing moveable zipper barrier systems — like the one operating on the Golden Gate Bridge — on both the westbound and eastbound spans that could be reconfigured based upon traffic patterns. According to advocates, such systems would enable officials to open three vehicular lanes on either span of the bridge during peak commute hours, while maintaining a bike lane on the span not experiencing heavy traffic.

“There is money right now dedicated to this corridor through Regional Measure 3,” said Assemblymember Damon Connolly (D-San Rafael), a member of the coalition who authored legislation to encourage Caltrans to open a third westbound lane during peak commute hours. “We also know there is a great deal of federal infrastructure money right now and other sources.”

John Grubb, COO of the Bay Area Council, estimates that about 90 percent of the solution being proposed by the coalition would cost about $190 million, less than the $210 million currently available in Regional Measure 3 funding.

Commute-hour traffic congestion has long been a problem on the San Rafael Bridge. In 2018, congestion during the evening commute on the eastbound span was largely addressed by turning the shoulder lane into a third vehicular lane. The following year, a bike lane was installed on the western span as part of a pilot project to connect the San Francisco Bay Trail. The bike lane limited the bridge to just two vehicular lanes during the peak morning commute hours, and also eliminated the shoulder previously used by disabled vehicles.

“We are noticing that backup is continually getting longer, not only on workdays, but even on holidays,” said Willie Robinson, president of the Richmond NAACP.

Robinson notes that many commuters and neighbors impacted by the westbound traffic congestion are people of color. He and fellow members of the coalition point to data pulled from air monitors that are continuously collecting detailed information on air quality throughout the city. The data revealed spikes of harmful pollution coming from highways during peak commute hours that impact neighborhoods along I-580.

“One of the biggest polluters in Richmond is the particulate matter coming from the vehicles that are standing still at the bridge,” said Councilmember Cesar Zepeda, who plans to introduce a City Council resolution supporting the coalition’s proposed bridge changes.

Grubb notes that over 18,000 vehicles cross the bridge westbound every day, while only about 18 bicycles use the westbound bike lane during the peak morning commute hours. Cars, particularly when idle, emit pollutants that can cause cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases, he said. 

“In fact, studies show that stop-and-go traffic emits three times the amount of pollution into the air than a free-flowing freeway,” Grubb said. “If we open the third lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, we can stop this pollution from entering the communities that live along the bridge corridor, and save commuters time on their way to work.”

Vernon Whitmore, president of the Sante Fe Neighborhood Council, which represents an area bordering I-580, noted how it took him 20 minutes on a Saturday to drive on the highway from the Cutting Boulevard exit to the bridge toll.  

“Every morning, and all weekend, our people are breathing in this bad air,” Whitmore said.

Added Connelly, “We need to reimagine the Richmond San Rafael Bridge to emphasize multi-modal transportation, open up the third lane during busy commute hours, while still reserving a bike path with a moveable zipper lane.”