From Highway 101 to BART to SFO, traffic records are falling across the Bay Area.
More drivers are clogging Silicon Valley's busiest stretch of freeway now than they did during the dot-com bubble. Bay Area trains are more packed than when record gas prices peaked in summer 2008. And the region's biggest airport is busier than its pre-9/11 high.
The reason? The workforce from San Francisco to San Jose is the largest it has been in more than a decade, while East Bay worker totals are at their highest since 2008. And while airports, trains and freeways are busier these days across the country, the trend in the Bay Area is even more pronounced.
"I guess you could say it's kind of exciting to see traffic again," said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council business group. "If there's frustration -- gripping the steering wheel a little bit harder while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic -- at least more people are employed."
More traffic also means more train fares and gas tax revenues to keep transportation systems moving. But we're also leaning more heavily on an aging infrastructure network, and we're beginning to remember that an improving economy means more time at the wheel, standing on packed trains and waiting for delayed flights to take off.
"After the last few years, I think most people are willing to bear those inconveniences," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Santa Clara County's busiest bottleneck -- where Highway 101 splits Interstates 280 and 680 -- featured more vehicles in 2011 than ever during an average day, according to Caltrans data. The most heavily traveled stretch on the Peninsula, Highway 101 in San Mateo, set a record last year for rush hour vehicle counts after an extra traffic lane was added to meet the demand.
Tom De Vries sure notices.
"It is more congested during rush hour,"
And all those extra cars are tying up Bay Area bridges. During the fiscal year that ended in June, the region's toll bridge traffic went up for the first time in eight years, with an extra 1.2 million vehicles -- a 1 percent increase -- compared with the prior year. The San Mateo and Richmond bridges are at their busiest in four years.
"It's a lot heavier," said Scott O'Donnell, who drives from Hayward to his financial services job in Alameda. "You have to be on the road before 7" in the morning.
Around the nation, miles driven by U.S. motorists increased 1.2 percent through the first five months of this year compared with last year, with an especially-pronounced bump in California.
But traffic in the East Bay, San Francisco and on the bridges still lags behind last decade's peak, and a few spots -- like the busiest freeways in Alameda and Contra Costa counties -- are nowhere close to record congestion, as employment levels there have yet to return to previous highs.
The transportation trend is perhaps best illustrated by BART, which this month announced a ridership record after adding nearly 10 million annual passengers in two years. Now BART is launching extra trains on the Millbrae-to-Richmond line and has balanced its budget a few years after cutting service.
"It used to be you'd get on BART at 7 at night and there'd be like one person per double-seat at most. Now, at 7 at night the stations are still crowded," said Cupertino resident Dave Morris, who has been riding BART off-and-on for 30 years.
Caltrain also just posted an all-time-high rider count after surging 17 percent in two years. San Francisco Muni and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority each grew nearly 3 percent in the fiscal year that ended in June.
Gas prices, which are still about 50 cents a gallon below the all-time high, and the extra freeway traffic are helping transit agencies pick up new passengers.
"To be very honest with you, gas prices got everyone's attention," BART General Manager Grace Crunican said.
But Crunican said one thing "is going to come back to bite us." The extra riders increase wear and tear on infrastructure and usually help fund operations, not things like replacement vehicles. BART needs $7.5 billion to fix "the guts" of its system while the total debt for Bay Area roads and transit repairs is expected to rise above $50 billion later this year, Goodwin said.
More than 43 million passengers traveled through San Francisco International Airport in the fiscal year that ended in June, breaking a record set in 2001 before air traffic plummeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. SFO is the fastest growing large air hub in the nation, with traffic soaring 8 percent in the past year.
Most of SFO's newfound travelers are simply dumping Oakland and San Jose airports, which now combine to offer only 30 percent of all Bay Area flights, down from nearly half at one point last decade. As struggling airlines look to save money, they have shifted their flights to the biggest hubs.
Still, Oakland has rebounded to its busiest point in three years. The smallest of the three airports, though -- San Jose -- continues to shrink.
SFO is already one of the most delayed airports in the nation, earned mostly because of foggy conditions, but it's getting worse. SFO's delays have risen from a low-point average delay of 40 minutes a decade ago, when traffic bottomed out, to 65 minutes now. The airport and the FAA are working on a new air traffic control system to relieve congestion while regional officials are weighing price incentives to persuade airlines to shift traffic to Oakland and San Jose.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenberg17.
Defining a rider
You may be surprised to know that every time you take a round trip on a Bay Area bus or train, you're counted as two riders -- one for each direction.
The "ridership" totals posted by transit agencies here and around the nation actually reflect one-way trips, a fact that's rarely spelled out to the public.
Consider BART, which boasted in a news release this month that it had broken a record by tallying 366,565 average daily riders during the fiscal year that ended in June. But that figure represents one-way trips, and the actual number of daily people riding is about 200,000 -- with the average person being counted 1.8 times, because most people take round trips.
The totals continue to mount when you transfer transit lines, as well. Ride AC Transit and BART to work, then take the same way back home, and you'll be counted as four riders -- two for each agency.
In all, when factoring in round trips and transfers, the average person riding Bay Area transit is counted about 2.2 times per day, according to government data provided from the region's Clipper card payment system.