The recently energized metering lights on the Highway 4 and Highway 242 onramps are aimed at keeping morning traffic moving along, but some motorists are finding the change frustrating.
With two weeks on the books, Contra Costa transportation officials say the signals in Pittsburg, Bay Point and north Concord are working pretty much as planned. Some local drivers, however, are not impressed.
The meters, a first in Contra Costa County, have left some motorists irritated, saying they find themselves leaving for work earlier to avoid local tie-ups.
Paul Johannis of Bay Point said drivers had been "getting slammed every morning" the first few days, especially on Willow Pass Road headed east toward the San Marco Boulevard exit.
"It looks like it's mellowed out a little bit in the last couple days, but the first week was terrible," he said.
Others shared that sentiment.
Commuter Kristen Nickel of Bay Point found herself in a 30-minute "parking lot" driving on Evora Road on Sept. 17. The cars backed up about a mile from the north Concord portion of Willow Pass up a hill to near Calvary Temple Church, she said.
"I find myself leaving like 45 minutes early to get to work every day. I've completely changed my morning routine," Nickel said. "It's unpredictable. It may be fine for eight days, but there's that ninth day where there's an accident (on Highway 4) and you're trapped."
Contra Costa transportation officials say they have received few complaints about the lights. In fact, just 14 have called the Caltrans hotline, though roughly 130,000 drivers use Highway 4 daily.
"Drivers have been patient," said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. "(Caltrans) engineers are out there every day, tweaking the performance of the lights if needed and monitoring backup times so it doesn't spill over into local traffic."
It's too soon to tell how well the lights are working, said Jack Hall, the authority's associate transportation director. He said a more thorough examination of the ramp metering will be completed in three to six months.
A look at the metered area on a recent morning found the heaviest backup at the Railroad Avenue onramp at 7 a.m. Cars were stopped about a block north into the far right-hand lane, but the line was gone minutes later.
The two westbound onramps at San Marco Road had long lines of vehicles around 7:20 a.m., causing back up into an intersection, but not obscuring traffic.¿
Traffic on side streets moved, with the longest backup on Evora, totaling about 40 cars. There were no back ups on any of the ramps at 6 a.m.
Metering lights for the afternoon commute started a week ago.
Adding signals during peak commute hours is supposed to keep freeway traffic moving through one of the Bay Area's and nation's most gridlocked corridors. Briefly stopping oncoming traffic keeps multiple autos from trying to squeeze onto the freeway at once, preventing braking for merging vehicles and reducing sideswipes, officials said.
Some East Contra Costa residents surmise that drivers are using side streets to take them as far as they can before merging onto Highway 4 to avoid gridlock.
Hall points out that may be the wrong strategy.
"Getting on the mainline as soon as possible maximizes its effectiveness," said Hall, himself a Highway 4 commuter.
Though installed in 1995, Contra Costa transportation officials and local leaders balked at using metering lights because they could cause surface street back ups. The county began studying metering again as a possible answer to improving area transit after approval of Proposition 1B in 2006, which helped pay for transportation projects to relieve congestion.
After months of public meetings, plans were given the go-ahead earlier this year.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission officials say ramp metering has a successful track record through out the state, including U.S. 101 in San Mateo County and Interstate 580 in Alameda County. Iwasaki adds the science and technology models used to set timing plans has improved.
Plans call for installing meters at Highway 4 entrances through Martinez and Antioch by the end of 2015, adding them in East Contra Costa as road-widening construction moves east.
According to the county, metering lights will reduce the morning Highway 4 drive time from Antioch to Martinez by 10 minutes and afternoon commute by nine minutes.
All told, the project's total cost is about $27 million, $900,000 of which went toward the first batch activated this month.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
Drivers who want more information about the metering light or wish to report a concern can call the Caltrans Ramp Metering information line at 510-286-4531.