Smart Corridors system offers San Mateo County motorists relief from major crashes 

When a major crash shuts down U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo County, it doesn’t take long for the traffic mess to spread to local roads. Desperate for an alternate way to get home, motorists take to city streets, which quickly become just as chaotic as the gridlocked freeway.

“If you force people off, you need to tell them what to do,” said Rich Napier, executive director of the planning agency City/County Association of Governments. “You need to help the traffic that’s off [the freeway] because of an incident so you can get ’em out of the neighborhood.”

Next week, the association expects to start construction on the pilot phase of a Plan B for such a situation — a $25 million project known as Smart Corridors that includes new cameras, electronic signs, sensors and fiber optic infrastructure on El Camino Real and other city streets around Highway 101.

Smart Corridors, paid for mostly by state funds, will allow officials to reroute traffic around a freeway crash, using cameras and synchronized traffic lights on roadways between Interstate 380 and Whipple Avenue in Redwood City. Crews plan to begin work next week on a test portion of the project along El Camino Real in San Mateo, but funding for the rest of the project could hit a speed bump next month.

The association plans to ask the state transportation commission in March to release the last of the funds for building the entire project, spanning 14 miles and seven cities, but the commission could delay action due to the state budget crisis.

“We got the money committed,” Napier said, “it’s a matter of we may or may not get it at the time we want.”

For motorists, the system will help them get home on days like Jan. 29, 2008, when a fuel tanker overturned and spilled 2,000 gallons of gas south of Whipple Avenue, completely shutting down the freeway for more than six hours during the evening commute. The highway that typically carries 200,000 vehicles daily didn’t fully re-open for almost two days.

Foster City Mayor Linda Koelling remembers the hours of gridlock in her town during that accident and said she sees the potential benefit of Smart Corridors. But she’s not optimistic the state funds will be released next month.

“Is it something that is absolutely necessary?” Koelling asked. “I’m sure if I were in the state Legislature, I’d probably say, ‘We’re going to delay this for a little while.’”

When 101 is functioning normally, city engineers will be able to use the Smart Corridors system to tweak local traffic signals to improve traffic flow or display messages via the electronic signs.

“It certainly seems to make sense that we should have more ways to notify people when there are traffic problems,” said Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel, who sits on the association board.

Traffic control

The Smart Corridors project will bring new high-tech upgrades to local roads:

- Directional signs to direct traffic
- Fixed or pan-tilt-zoom closed-circuit television cameras at intersections and midblock locations
- Communications to provide a connection between local agency traffic signals on local streets and state operated traffic signals on state routes
- Upgraded traffic signal controllers and/or cabinets and signal operation software systems
- Changeable message signs to inform motorists of traffic conditions
- Center-to-center communications between the proposed San Mateo County hub and the Caltrans District 4 Transportation Management Center
- Vehicle detector stations on El Camino Real and local streets at mid-block locations

Source: City/County Association of Governments

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