OAKLAND — The economic recession is providing some relief for a persistent Bay Area headache: traffic congestion.

Hours of traffic delays caused by gridlock on freeways in the nine counties decreased 12 percent in 2008 — the first drop since 2003, when congestion began worsening as the region emerged from the dot-com bust, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said Thursday in its annual report on gridlock.

Officials with the nine-county transportation funding commission, called MTC, attributed the improved traffic flow mostly to the economic hard times as fewer people with jobs meant fewer people driving to work.

"We know congestion tracks with unemployment," said Scott Haggerty, the MTC chairman who lives in Dublin and also serves on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

Traffic congestion improvements such as new ramp metering lights on Interstate 580 onramps in the Livermore Valley also helped ease congestion, Haggerty and other MTC officials said in an Oakland news conference.

The Bay Area's most congested freeway — westbound I-80 in the morning rush from the Bay Bridge to Powell Street in Emeryville — maintained its unenviable spot as worst place to get stuck in a traffic jam.

However, traffic flow actually improved last year when traffic delays declined by 8 percent, the commission reported.

"That corridor is likely to say on top of the list for many years to come," said Bijan Sartipi, Caltrans regional director. "However, we have seen traffic patterns along the I-80 corridor gradually change (improve) over the last few years."


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Nine of 10 freeways on the most congested list this year also made the list last year.

The only new one to make the list was the afternoon eastbound commute on Highway 4 from Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg to Somersville road in Antioch. It was the 11th most congested freeway in 2008 when its congestion neither improved or worsened.

The only freeway to fall off the 10 worst list was southbound I-880 between the I-238 connector ramp and A Street in San Leandro during the morning commute. Sartipi said congestion eased on this route because of an extra lane added onto a portion of southbound I-880.

The ramp metering lights helped achieve a 29 percent reduction in delays last year on the dreaded afternoon rush hour on eastbound I-580 as commuters return from Bay Area jobs to homes in the San Joaquin Valley, the commission reported.

As a result, the afternoon commute on eastbound I-580 dropped from second to third most congested freeway section in the nine Bay Area counties in 2008. On the morning commute on westbound I-580, the metering lights helped deliver a 17 percent decline in traffic delays. As a result, the westbound I-580 morning commute slipped from fourth to six most congested spot.

While they are not "the magic bullet" to counter gridlock, metering lights are among a series of anti-congestion measures that the commission and Caltrans either have begun or are planning with money from county sales tax measures and transportation bonds state voters approved in 2006, Haggerty said.

Late next year, toll lanes open to carpools for free and to others for a fee are planned on I-580 in Pleasanton and on I-680 between Sunol and Fremont, transit planners noted.

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read the Capricious Commuter at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation.