In-depth: Are the I-80 SMART corridors easing traffic congestion?

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RICHMOND (KRON) — Among the worst commutes in the country is in the East Bay.

The notoriously slow Interstate 80 corridor received a face-lift this year, with new technology.

It’s supposed to make managing the traffic “smarter.”

On Thursday night, KRON4 goes in-depth to find out if the I-80 SMART corridor is really as smart as it’s been billed.

Drive by and you’ll notice, from the Carquinez Bridge to Emeryville, the 20-mile stretch along westbound Interstate 80 has a new look–traffic information boards that, when active, give motorists a snapshot of driving conditions.

Forty-three additional ramp meters are set up along the corridor to stagger congestion, and overhead electronic signs that light up during accidents are relaying to drivers suggested speeds during a collision and which lanes should be used or avoided to keep traffic flowing.

The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, says the stretch is among the top 10 worst in the state, averaging 25 lane blocking incidents a week.

Late this summer, the SMART corridor fully launched.

It was a $79 million investment, and the early returns are in.

Through mid-October, Caltrans says the new overhead signs have been activated at least 18 times.

And, in conjunction with the additional ramp metering, during traffic incidents, travel times have improved on average between 3 and 6 minutes.

Overall, though, traffic information company INRIX says travel speeds this past September are slower than they were for the same period last year.

Just taking a look at the 7 a.m. hour, this year, the average speed was 21.84 miles per hour. Last year, it was 23.27 miles per hour.

“The life of a commuter in California is a difficult life,” Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Alex Bayen said.

And he is the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley.

“This is the Bay Area, this is the Silicon Valley, this is Los Angeles,” Bayen said. “This is a place where innovation is very rapid.”

Bayen specializes in mobile sensing and believes Caltrans and its SMART corridor will continue to improve congestion.

“SMART corridor solutions are essential in the future of mobility in the US because of the demographic explosions in some places in particular like California,” Bayen said. “It’s not going to be possible in the future to build more infrastructure to accommodate more traffic. So, in order to relieve that congestion, we need other solutions and the solutions have to do with operations and planning, and this is really where SMART corridor concept can make a huge difference.”

KRON4 learned this past weekend though that the SMART corridor doesn’t automatically activate every time there is an accident.

One three-car crash shut down two lanes near Richmond, but the system wasn’t turned on.

Caltrans says incidents have to be confirmed by traffic cameras or the CHP first.

But if the accidents can quickly be moved to the shoulder, then the overhead signs will remain off.

“Ultimately, if you look at the grand vision of urban transport, yes, I think the whole freeway system and the arterial system needs to become a SMART corridor or a set of connected SMART corridors,” Bayen said.

Bayen says this is essential, considering 270,000 motorists pass through this corridor on a daily basis.

And that number will only get bigger.

As traffic gets more congested in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of interest in driverless vehicles.

On Friday night, KRON4 will look at automation and how that could improve the Bay Area commute.

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