OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — The state spent millions on the new Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge, but the technology used to keep cars moving dates back four decades.
At the District 4 Regional Transportation Center, workers have their finger on the pulse of Bay Area traffic.
“It’s responsible for the operation of freeways in the nine Bay Area Counties,” Sean Coughlin of Caltrans told KPIX 5.
The center is so critical visitors are only allowed to watch from the outside. Controls here include the metering lights at the Bay Bridge, the chokepoint of the centerpiece of Bay Area travel.
When this system was installed in the 1970s, it was state of the art, the envy of other transit agencies. And over the years, you’d expect periodic improvements in the software system. We are, of course, the home of the Silicon Valley. But you’d be wrong, very wrong.
“We’ve got a system from 40 years ago, that has had very little improvement since 1974,” Coughlin said.
It still works. Works pretty well for what it is. And people do a good job with what they have to work with.
What does it mean to drivers? “The system is not capable of responding to minute to minute changes, as quickly as it would be, if we had contemporary 21st century systems,” said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Computers don’t make the decisions, humans do. Decisions based on the information they get from the system, which isn’t very good. There are no traffic sensors on the bridge farther up on the roadway, to help make metering decisions. The system is so old, sometimes the lights just go haywire, turn off and on their own.
Commuters might find this information jaw dropping. How did we get here?
“The simple answer is money,” Goodwin said.
It isn’t that there’s no money available. The state has money. It just has other priorities.
“There are other projects that have been identified as more important to more people, and that’s the decision that’s been made,” Goodwin said.
“It simply doesn’t rank high enough, relative to all the other priorities, that we have,” Coughlin said.
But traffic is only getting worse, with employment now near an all-time high. And such difficult decisions in Sacramento often move as slowly as traffic at the Bay Bridge metering lights.
There are currently no plans to update the decades old software.
In May, Caltrans looked at the traffic pattern from a year ago. It found traffic had increased 3 percent.