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Caldecott neighbors worried about construction

on November 9, 2010

With construction on the Caldecott Tunnel’s long-awaited fourth bore almost a year underway, on Monday night City Council President Jane Brunner and several other city officials met with a group of Oakland residents just three miles from the tunnel to weigh the merits of a series of smaller construction projects they hope will ease any increase in traffic resulting from the tunnel’s expansion.

At the meeting, held by the City of Oakland at Kaiser Elementary School in the North Oakland hills, city planning consultant Victoria Eisen presented 32 potential “mitigations,” or projects to compensate residents along the Highway 24 corridor in the North Oakland hills, Rockridge, and the Temescal for the expected rise in traffic, noise, and pollution in their neighborhoods when the tunnel’s fourth bore opens in 2013.  The proposed mitigations, which must stay within a budget of $8 million, include bike lanes and sidewalks, traffic signals, and sound walls around the city’s highways.

Eisen stressed that, for the moment, the proposals are merely “conceptual.”  Brunner aide Zac Wald told the audience that “all projects are going to require further testing and community approval.”  He added the projects are on a “living list,” and stand to be significantly revised or replaced entirely.

The massive Caldecott Fourth Bore Project is expected to cost $400 million to complete—of which $280 million has been allocated in federal stimulus funds, making it the largest stimulus-funded infrastructure project in the country.  Its remaining funding comes from a variety of sources, including a Contra Costa County transportation sales tax approved by county voters in 2004, and a portion of the bridge tolls collected by the Bay Area Toll Authority.

When it opened in 1937, the tunnel had only two bores—one for each direction of traffic.  In 1964 a third bore was added, with the ability to switch direction depending on the flow of traffic.  Construction on the fourth bore began in January, and is expected to take four years to complete.

When Caltrans, the agency responsible for constructing the fourth bore, first announced the project, the city of Oakland threatened to sue the agency for the disruption city officials predicted would result from the bore’s construction.  Caltrans agreed to a settlement of $8 million before the dispute made it to court; this money will directly fund the local mitigations.

The sudden windfall has given residents incentive to lobby for infrastructure changes they’ve been seeking for years.  Many proposals, like a walking path leading to Lake Temescal, seem to have little connection to Caldecott Tunnel.  After the city’s presentation on Monday, attendees were invited to share their thoughts, which they did eagerly—some in support of a specific project, and others vehemently against.

Oakland Hills resident Sydney Mullin said she thinks Oakland owes more bike lanes to its young people.  “I think they don’t have any other form of transportation.  They want to feel safe,” she said.  “And not just the recreational bikers, but the commuters in greater and greater numbers.”

Oakland Landscape Committee Chairman Gordon Piper, in contrast, proposed the development of a rest stop for cyclists and hikers in the Oakland hills.  And Rockridge resident Tim Bowers asked, “If we’re going to build anything, why not build a playground?”

Perhaps the most controversial proposals were those that would create sound walls along various parts of Highway 24.  Many attendees complained that such walls are unsightly, and would only deflect the highway’s noise marginally.  But Andy Charman, a physicist at UC Berkeley, disagreed.  At 70 to 80 decibels, he said, the noise levels near Highway 24 are “higher in Rockridge than the United Nations considers problematic in developing countries.”

While the details of the proposals remain unsettled, Brunner expressed gratitude that her district had the chance to take on so many projects.  “It is really amazing to think this community is going to get $8 million,” she said, “because we were never going to get it anywhere else.”

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Image: City planning consultant Victoria Eisen describes a proposed traffic signal improvement to Oakland residents.

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