New metering lights brighten commute 

San Mateo resident Todd Blair said his commute to work Tuesday morning was akin to a "good Friday," with no stops and only a few places where traffic slowed on his way to Redwood City.

Tuesday was the first morning that metering lights began regulating drivers entering U.S. Highway 101 at eight southbound San Mateo County onramps. And aside from minor problems — including a computer malfunction and one damaged light at Hillsdale Boulevard — traffic flowed smoothly, according to Caltrans as well as commuters like Blair.

"The whole idea is that we want to meter the traffic getting on the freeway," said Sandy Wong, from the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County’s Congestion Management Program. "Obviously drivers will have to wait a little on the ramp, but once they’re on the freeway it will go faster for them."

The biggest benefit of the lights is that they break up groups of cars all trying to enter the highway at the same time, known to traffic engineers as "platoons," Wong said. By only allowing one car to move onto the freeway at a time, the lights should also cut down on the number of collisions and accidents on local ramps.

Most of the problems during the day were focused on Hillsdale Boulevard, where a computer malfunction held up traffic with nothing but red lights on the ramp from eastbound Hillsdale.

On the southbound ramp, a 5:30 a.m. accident took out the control box and light, but Caltrans spokeswoman Gidget Navarro said it should be repaired by the end of the week.

According to a 2005 study, more than 235,000 drivers pass through the Hillsdale onramp alone each month.

The metering lights are part of a regional move toward "intelligent transportation systems," that collect traffic information and can be modified to deal with specific traffic needs.

Each of the metering lights has end-of-queue sensors tomonitor how much traffic volume is on the ramp at a given time. If traffic is heavy, the frequency of green lights increases.

Navarro said Caltrans crews will be inspecting the lights each work day during the next two weeks to take care of any problems. On Feb. 20, the northbound lights will be turned on.

They will show green only for a week before regulating drivers beginning Feb. 27.

"It’s good to see some progress being made toward lessening the congestion," Blair said. "I’m looking forward to seeing what happens on the northbound side because that’s the real slowdown for me."

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