Metering lights start today, clog U.S. 101 North 

Metering lights will greet northbound morning commuters today on U.S. Highway 101. Metering lights have been operating on southbound onramps for nearly a month between Hillsdale Boulevard in San Mateo and University Avenue in Palo Alto. Northbound metering lights will begin today at the same locations, giving even more motorists a chance to bide their time before entering the freeway.

"It shouldn’t be a surprise for motorists because they’ve had time to adjust to southbound ones," Gidget Navarro, a Caltrans spokeswoman, said.

Officials are hoping for the same immediate improvements that they’ve seen for southbound traffic flow. Metering lights enable free-flowing traffic because they breakup "platoons," or clumps of cars that merge into freeways at once, Navarro said.

"Drivers don’t actually see the benefit until they go a little farther," she said.

In an informal survey, prior to the installation of metering lights, travel time from Third Street in San Mateo to the Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto took 30 minutes during the most congested morning hours, according to Sandy Wong from the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County’s Congestion Management Program. After lights were installed, travel time was reduced to 20 minutes.

The new lights, which cost about $4 million, are part of a highway improvement package, partly funded by the county’s Measure A sales tax and matching funds from the state, according to Wong. There is preliminary talk of installing more lights on 101 north of Highway 92 and on Interstate Highway 280, north of Interstate Highway 380.

"But we are years from that," Wong said.

The initial unveiling of southbound lights last month hit a bump in the road at Hillsdale. A wayward car slammed into one light while a computer glitch had the other lights stuck on red, causing a major back-up for a brief time. But the problems were fixed and drivers seem to have adjusted.

"It eases the congestion," said Lisa Ruth of San Mateo. "It’d be nice if they did it on (Highway) 92."

But some commuters are skeptical. A.J. Davenport, who works at Hillsdale Shopping Mall, said congestion will continue because of freeway bottlenecks, such as the one south of Broadway in Burlingame.

"For some reason, everyone and their mother think they have to go 30 mph along that turn," he said.

Concerns that metering lights would cause backups into city streets don’t seem to have materialized, said Larry Patterson, San Mateo’s director of Public Works.

"There are still some heavy queues on the southbound ramps but those issueswill be resolved within the next week or so," he said. "But the benefits are measurable and significant, which is what we are after."

The metering lights will run 6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, Wong said.

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