If the Bay Area were a heart patient, then the Caldecott Tunnel would surely cause a massive coronary. Waiting in traffic, jolting forward, stopping and starting, and wearing out clutches, 175,000 motorists swell Route 24 and its feeder arteries daily, all for a chance to snake through the belly of a hillside that separates Alameda County from Contra Costa. Traffic has only worsened since the last bore was completed in 1964, and talk of drilling yet another bore to connect the two counties has come and gone through the years. A recent study on the Caldecott Tunnel seems to indicate that talk will soon resume–and maybe turn to action. But if Contra Costa is eagerly waiting on one side with pickaxes, Alameda County is waiting on the other–ready with boards and nails.
Drilling a hole through the side of a mountain is no mean feat. It takes years of design and planning–and plenty of cash–to create a new tunnel. But some say it’s an idea that’s long overdue. Caltrans estimates that current delays at the approaches to the tunnel’s three passageways total 3,250 hours per day; the cost of that lost time is estimated at $10.8 million per work year. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional transportation planner that connects all nine counties in the Bay Area, recently commissioned a study of the entire Route 24/Caldecott Tunnel corridor. Completed this January, the study had some surprising results.
Although the study recommended drilling a fourth bore, results showed that the new tunnel would do more to benefit Alameda County residents commuting into Contra Costa–the reverse commute. Currently, the flow of traffic in the Caldecott’s three tunnels is juggled throughout the day, resulting in four lanes of westbound traffic in the morning, and four lanes entering Contra Costa in the evening. But if a fourth bore were constructed, it would allow for four lanes in each direction all day–which means no change in the peak commute, but two lanes added to the reverse commute. It makes sense, says Doug Kimsey, MTC’s project manager for the study. “The reverse commute is growing faster than the commute direction,” he says. Although there are fewer people going to Contra Costa in the morning and coming home to Alameda in the evening, the time delay is slightly worse on the reverse-commute route than for the much larger group commuting the other way. “So what’s going to happen in the reverse commute,” Kimsey says, “is that delays are expected to get even worse than in the commute direction.”
The study concluded that the fourth bore could present a compelling solution to the congestion along Route 24, especially if it were coupled with express buses and expanded parking at Contra Costa BART stations. But not everyone who sat on the 14-member Policy Advisory Committee (made up of elected officials from both Alameda and Contra Costa) agreed. Berkeley City Councilmembers Miriam Hawley and Polly Armstrong, among others from Alameda County, withheld their endorsement of the document. Hawley argues that the MTC kept pushing the Caldecott fourth bore rather than seriously examining other options, such as greatly expanded public transportation. “We did feel for a while that we were being presented with information on how to dig it and how to dispose of the construction problems rather than grappling with the real issues around the Caldecott,” Hawley says. “There was a feeling that it was a foregone conclusion.”
“The MTC people had an agenda,” Armstrong says. “And it really didn’t matter what we asked for; the answers came out the same.”
But if the MTC had an agenda, it was one that the state shared. While the committee was deliberating over the Route 24 issue in May 2000, Governor Gray Davis came out with his Traffic Congestion Relief Plan, which allocated $20 million for the design and environmental review of the fourth bore plan. It was a move that blew the cards off the table for the Alameda County contingent. “The governor came along with his $20 million to help build it, and that bypassed the local process,” fumes Hawley. “It took it out of the hands of the locals. That was very unfortunate.” An additional $16 million was granted to the project by the California Transportation Commission, enough to take Caltrans through the design and review stage.
Without Alameda County’s support, it will be difficult for Contra Costa County to single-handedly carry the burden of seeing the fourth bore to completion. But Contra Costa legislators, including Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) and Assemblyperson Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek) believe that Alameda will soon come around to their way of thinking, especially as traffic worsens over the next five years. “I think Alameda County has reservations, concerns, or issues that they would like addressed, and I believe they can be addressed,” says Torlakson, who ran for Senate on a transportation platform that included almost rabid support for a fourth bore. “I think, over time, we will see growing support from Alameda.” If not, then Torlakson is almost ready to “instigate a tunnel team–a thousand people to show up with picks and shovels, and start building it ourselves.”
“Certainly in the beginning it had very little interest from Alameda County,” Leach says. “On their list of priorities it was way down. And it was number one in Contra Costa. But we’ve seen greater interest on the part of Alameda County. They’re much more receptive than they were three years ago.”
But the rift between Alameda and Contra Costa could prove deeper than the kilometer-long highway tunnels that connect the two counties. Contra Costa, with its suburban expanses that make public transit awkward or inefficient, sees expanding the highway as prudent; residents in the built-out urban centers of Alameda County, on the other hand, see it as a repetition of past mistakes. “There’s a drumbeat of evidence which shows that increasing highway capacity is no long-term solution to congestion problems and certainly to environmental problems,” says Berkeley’s Armstrong. “We learn that over and over again in every study. And I just think that before we spend our very limited transportation dollars to expand capacity, we should figure out if we can’t help more people by expanding our transit offering.”
It’s going to be a long time before commuters see the light at the end of a fourth tunnel, but that’s not to say that Contra Costa isn’t working hard to find funds for the project. Caltrans has also started on the design work for the various tunnel options–a process which, along with the environmental impact work, will take around five years to complete. Last week, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority forwarded the fourth bore project idea to MTC as part of its wish list for local projects. Although MTC has no money available for the multimillion-dollar hole, that move opens up the possibility of state or federal grants in the next few years. A conservative cost estimate for actually building the tunnel hovers around $200 million, of which zero has been committed so far.
Torlakson is hoping that any funds left over from the Bay Bridge retrofit could be used toward the fourth bore, but that’s a distant prospect, since the retrofit looks like it’s swimming way over budget. Both Torlakson and Leach have authored bills that aim to preserve transportation funds for projects like the Caldecott Tunnel in an uncertain budgetary future: Torlakson introduced a bill that would amend the California Constitution to make it easier for a locality to tax itself for transportation projects by lowering the voting requirement down from its current two-thirds to a simple majority. And Leach proposes that five percent of the growth of the state budget every year be set aside strictly for transportation usage.
“I felt all along that the Contra Costa people were going to end up with a Pyrrhic victory,” says Armstrong, who is confident that the fourth bore will never see light of day, especially when the $200 million bill comes due. “They hear, ‘increase the tunnels,’ they think, ‘improve the commute.’ And that was never on the drawing board. It’s my opinion that the people of Contra Costa weren’t going to vote to tax themselves to make these huge outlays when it is not going to benefit them.”