Congestion becoming worse on Highway 101, but causes hard to determine 

Traffic on one of the county’s main arteries has been getting a lot worse.

It takes a whopping 40 minutes to drive south on U.S. Highway 101 through San Mateo County during the evening weekday rush hour, up from 29 minutes in 2009, according to a report commissioned by the San Mateo City/County Association of Governments. The morning commute also went up six minutes to a 34-minute average.

For a chart of the travel times for the evening commute on U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo County, click on the photo to the right.

Yet officials are perplexed as to why.

“We’re scratching our heads with that,” said John Hoang of the association’s Congestion Management Department.

One possibility, Hoang said, is that more vehicles have hit the road as the economy has picked up — which was the case during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.

But that notion is contradicted by statewide figures.

As of May, according to the Federal Highway Administration, traffic on California roads has decreased by 2.7 percent over last year.

And public transportation use has gone up, taking more drivers off roads.

Between 2005 and 2009, ridership in the county on Caltrain, SamTrans and BART increased from 36.6 million to 44.5 million. And compared with last year, Caltrain ridership has swelled 11.6 percent and SamTrans is up 0.4 percent, Hoang said.

“101 is the main backbone of the county that connects San Francisco and Santa Clara,” Hoang said. “It’s the most-traveled freeway, so naturally it’s going to have more traffic because it has more destinations.”

The seven segments of 101 that were studied received an “F” rating, meaning vehicles average less than 56 mph in a 65-mph zone.

“It seems like it’s gridlock at multiple points up and down the Peninsula every day,” said Chris Cooney, who has been making the commute from San Francisco to Redwood City for the past year.

Hoang said the county is working to fix the problem. An auxiliary lane at Third and Millbrae avenues was recently added and has reduced traffic. In the next few years, the county might add on- and off-ramp auxiliary lanes along 101 north of Millbrae and in the south county, said Hoang. Carpool lanes north of Whipple Avenue will be extended, and by 2015 they could be opened up for drivers willing to pay a fee.

More stop lights at freeway on-ramps are also going in on 101 and Interstate 280, he said.

Peninsula cities and the county pay $1.8 million annually to help reduce congestion on roadways. However, much of that money can’t be used for projects on 101 because it does not quite violate congestion standards set in 1991.

This is the first year the traffic study used GPS technology, which provides greater detail about where buildups occur. Rather than simply timing how long it takes a car to make it from point A to point B, cars outfitted with GPS give detailed information about slow-downs in distinct road segments, Hoang said.

nkyriakou@sfexaminer.com

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