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Get ready for the I-580 parking lot
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Interstate 580 across the Altamont Pass is the canary in the mine.

In 2002 it was ranked the 105th most congested stretch of freeway in the Bay Area. A year later it jumped to 10th.

Today the westbound morning commute is the third worst in the Bay Area.

The average daily traffic count hits 148,000 vehicles when I-580 reaches Corral Hollow Road just west of the Alameda County line. By the time it reaches Hopyard Road in Pleasanton it spikes to 222,000 vehicles a day. This is not news to those who commute it every day or who may travel into the Bay Area on the weekend.

What may surprise them, however, is back in 2008 when those numbers were at 205,000 for the Hopyard and around 130,000 for Corral Hollow, the California Transportation Department projected traffic crossing the Altamont Pass would increase 90 percent by 2030. That essentially would make I-580 at Corral Hollow more congested in 13 years from now than I-580 is at Hopyard today.

This is happening because of the Bay Area's spectacular failure to even come close to a jobs and housing balance. As a result, people are forced to move to our Valley.

I-580 isn't the only spillover freeway that brings in the workers needed to keep the Bay Area economy humming. Nor is this a unique problem of the Bay Area. Go to Southern California and the Inland Empire - Riverside and San Bernardino counties - is to Los Angeles what the San Joaquin Valley is to the Bay Area.

Knowing that the east-west commutes that serve the state's two most dominate regions - the Los Angeles Basin and the Bay Area - is going to get significantly worse than any north or south commute within either metro area, the powers that be in Sacramento rolled out the wrong solution to address California's future needs. The wrong solution is the $70 billion plus bauble that Governor Jerry Brown has referred to as his legacy - high-speed rail.

Defenders of high-speed rail have thrown every argument in the book out to try and temper criticism including how it will be one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases and to get people out of their cars - both which would have more impact by far with east-west service. They've also made wild promises that when it is up and running it won't need state support for maintenance and operations. The reason why the bullet train in Japan is successful is the fact it is a commuter rail. Close to a decade later all of the private sector investors that supporters said during the 2008 election would stumble over each other to get in on the action to convince voters high-speed was the real deal, have yet to materialize.

The reason is obvious. The real rail game in California is moving people east-west and not north-south.

Imagine, if you will, 100,000 more vehicles in 2030 than the current 148,000 that make their way across the Altamont Pass currently on an average day.

To keep the speeds from deteriorating at a faster rate than the pavement, the corridor would have to be expanded to 20 lanes.

By not doing anything doesn't slow down growth in the Valley. That's because the Bay Area will need tons more of workers to keep the economy going who won't be able to live in the Bay Area.

Building another freeway over Patterson Pass - such as the effort that former Congressman Richard Pombo carried the torch for - isn't an acceptable answer. And that's not because it would destroy a fairly pristine area to reach San Jose - which it would - but because it wouldn't address the real problem.

Simply put that problem is to how to support the Bay Area economy with housing and to do so in a manner that doesn't compound congestion issues on freeways and surface streets west of the Altamont.

High-speed rail from Merced over the Altamont Pass on dedicated tracks plus the extension of BART to connect with the Altamont Corridor Express station at Vasco Road in Livermore to allow a high frequency of trains is the best possible answer short of figuring a way to cram reasonably priced housing into the Bay Area.

We need to get commuters out of their cars. The way you do that is reliable heavy and light rail with bus connections that are quicker, less expensive, and more reliable than millions of cars being in play daily for commuting in the Bay Area.

High-speed rail, as it is designed, won't make a noticeable impact on the daily commute either in northern or Southern California. Worse yet, the prospects of it being a less than stellar use of money when it does get up and running could sour voters on high speed or heavy rail solutions that are needed for the quality of life killing east-west commutes that a huge chunk of Californians endure.

Efforts should have gone first into making high-speed rail work in the metro areas with the Bay Area being easier to get off the ground than Los Angeles.

But instead of doing what is best, the politically expedient approach was used to get the section with the least obstacles in first in the middle of what is essentially nowhere for California mass transit needs - the San Joaquin Valley.

Meanwhile, I-580 over the Altamont Pass will serve as the weathervane when it comes to not only deteriorating infrastructure but also the state's inability to address the real commute issues facing California in the 21st century.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.