No one can say Highway 101 has been neglected.

Over the past two decades, more than $1.2 billion has been spent to improve the vital freeway link between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. A ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday marks the end of work on the latest upgrade -- the new interchange at Capitol Expressway and 101 in San Jose.

And what do we have to show for that massive pouring of concrete? One of the most congested highways in the Bay Area.

Road work since the early '90s has provided at best a temporary fix, but traffic delays on 101 are back with a vengeance. Slowdowns last sometimes until 10 a.m. during the morning commute. In the evening, bank on "rush hour" running from as early as 2:30 p.m. to as late as 7:30 p.m.

And commuters are grumbling big time.

"Is the 8 mph southbound 101 commute a permanent state?" asked Joe Chamberlain of San Jose.

"Carpools are not much better, maybe 20 miles an hour," said Vinod Reddy of San Jose.

A trip down 101 from Highway 92 to San Jose can now take seven more minutes, a 14 percent increase from a year ago, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Northbound it's worse -- 17 percent, taking nine more minutes.

A lot of the congestion has to do with the booming economy and hiring at companies like Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and Google. But if good times mean bad commutes, what can be done? Adding more lanes is not the answer, as there's almost no space left.


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Road planners know that not doing anything would have made 101 worse -- remember how 101 once bottlenecked down to two lanes each way at Alum Rock Avenue? -- but they also know that Highway 101 will remain jammed for decades to come, maybe permanently.

"We know that no matter what we do with 101, we'll never serve all the demand there," said Sandy Wong, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County. "We agree that we cannot pave our way out of traffic delays. And that it would have been much worse if we hadn't made the improvements."

If you want a more reliable commute with options to get out of lanes crowded with solo drivers, be prepared to pay. The Valley Transportation Authority will focus on converting existing carpool lanes to toll lanes for drivers willing to pay to drive solo in those lanes. And a second express lane may be added on 101 over the next decade.

The express lanes program comes at a crucial time as Santa Clara County braces for a 38 percent growth in population and a 62 percent increase in jobs (668,000 new residents and 540,000 new jobs) by 2035, according to a VTA forecast.

But the jobs -- and number of commuters on 101 -- are filling every inch of every lane on this freeway. Santa Clara County's job market expanded at an annual rate of 4.3 percent over the 12 months that ended in April, according to the state's most recent jobs report.

That's expected to make the South Bay the fastest-growing job market in the nation.

"Historically we have only addressed one side of the equation by adding capacity and not dealing with the demand side," said John Ristow, who oversees highway planning for the VTA. "As long as freeways are free they will always be full."

The opening of new ramps at Capitol Expressway and last year at Tully Road will bring some relief. And so will the opening of the new merging lanes from Mountain View to Palo Alto in late July. But for how long, no one really knows.

A decade ago, the 85-101 interchange at Shoreline Boulevard was rebuilt at a cost of $123.5 million, making it the most expensive interchange in Silicon Valley.

Today, gridlock.

"The PR message was that it would greatly reduce traffic congestion on northbound 101," said Diane Farrar of San Jose. "The congestion became, however, worse than ever and remains so years later. Is anyone accountable for this mess?"

Other bumps in the road ahead remain. Meters will be added for nearly the entire 70 miles from Gilroy to San Francisco, but some of the technology is based on equipment designed in the 1980s.

And efforts to extend the carpool lanes from Whipple Avenue in Redwood City to San Francisco will draw a firestorm, especially if it means converting the existing fast lane into a diamond lane, as could happen. Ditto for adding a second carpool lane in each direction on 101.

"Just throwing more money at our transportation problems is not what we need," said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of the advocacy group TransForm. "We need innovation. Without innovation, we'll keep throwing billions more into 20th-century infrastructure projects and we'll get 20th-century results. Ever-increasing traffic, worsening pollution, and people separated further and further from each other."

Another focus is to grow from within. That's why San Jose is planning a massive expansion with more housing and job centers in the First Street-Brokaw Road area within walking distance of light rail and a loud honk from 101.

And new sales tax proposal in Santa Clara County would provide funds for Caltrain and the BART extension at Berryessa Road and 101.

"The best transit systems in the world can't function unless housing and employment are located at the transit stations," said Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute. "That has been the missing link in our system's development so far.

"Sacrificing frustrating hours per day braving the dangerously congested roadways, which in a short time will verge on terminal gridlock, will make it impossible to recruit the best and brightest for Silicon Valley jobs," he said. "The challenge is to move quickly, right now."

To anyone braving the 101 commute these days, that can't happen fast enough.

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

HIGHWAY 101 REPAIRS,
PAST AND FUTURE
Since the early 1990s, nearly $1.2 billion has been spent to improve Highway 101 from Morgan Hill to San Francisco.
what's been done
  • Widened to as many as 10 lanes
  • Carpool lanes extended from Morgan Hill to Redwood City
  • Interchanges rebuilt at Highway 85 in South San Jose and Mountain View, Capitol Expressway, Tully Road, Highway 87 and Marsh Road
  • Metering lights installed.
    WHAT'S NEXT
  • Adding auxiliary lanes from Highway 85 in Mountain View to Palo Alto this summer
  • Ramp metering from 92 to San Francisco County line later this year
    Down the road
  • Rebuilding 25-101 interchange
  • Adding express lanes from Highway 129 south of Gilroy to Whipple Avenue in Redwood City
  • Adding second exit lane from southbound 101 to south 87
  • Studying the conversion of the fast lane into an express/carpool lane from Redwood City to Interstate 380
  • Operational changes at Highway 92
  • Building multiple new interchanges
  • Adding more metering lights from Highway 25 to Old Oakland Road
  • Adding auxiliary lanes from Oyster Point to San Francisco County line