SAN FRANCISCO — Commuters in the San Francisco Bay area are spending less time sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, according to a state Department of Transportation study.
The number of hours wasted in traffic declined 12 percent during 2001, the study said. That’s the biggest one-year decline since Caltrans began tracking traffic jams on state highways in 1981. It’s also the first time congestion levels have fallen since 1994.
The number of freeway miles where traffic slows to a crawl also fell by 3 percent.
Caltrans officials believe the reductions are a sign highway improvements are working. But many motorists believe unemployment’s responsible.
“It’s the unemployment, definitely,” said Ray Torrefiel, who lives in Santa Clara and has noticed the lighter traffic. “People are moving out of the area. There’s no jobs.”
Michael Cunningham, vice president of transportation for the Bay Area Council, an employers’ organization, agreed.
“The generally accepted explanation is that a lot of people are out of work,” he said. “It’s not a surprise we’re seeing (a congestion reduction) here, but there is not evidence of any systemic improvement in how our transportation network works. When the economy comes back, every expectation is that traffic congestion is going to come back, too.”
Caltrans Director Jeff Morales acknowledged the economy is contributing to the drop in congestion, but said the dramatic dips in some areas where traffic improvements have been completed show that the Caltrans projects are making a difference.
Morales cited the addition of lanes and other improvements to Highway 87 in Santa Clara County, the Sunol Grade on Interstate 680 in Alameda County and Highway 101 in San Mateo County as examples.
In 2001, Caltrans completed 115 traffic improvements, including freeway widenings, rehabilitation efforts such as the repaving of Interstate 880 and safety improvements. Other improvements, such as the introduction of Fastrak electronic toll collection have also had an impact, said Dennis Trujillo, a Caltrans spokesman.
Congestion dropped in every Bay Area county but Alameda and Contra Costa, where it continued to rise.
The biggest reductions came in San Mateo at 40 percent, San Francisco at 32 percent and Santa Clara at 28 percent counties.