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With no relief in sight, business counts the cost of region's traffic
Around 6:10 a.m. Rolf Johnsen turns the metering lights on at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, signaling the start of the morning backup as thousands of cars start inching their way into San Francisco.
Six years ago, when he first became master of the metering lights, Johnsen didn't have to hit the on switch until nearly 7 a.m. Rush-hour ran at least 45 minutes shorter.
Now, on a good day when there are no rear-enders, no stalls, no injury accidents to block the bridge lanes, Johnsen can turn the lights off by 9 a.m. Sometimes the stop-and-go lights, flicking cars through at a rate of 160 per minute, stay on until nearly noon.
Each workday, 3 million commuters wend their way through the Bay Area's transportation network: Eight toll bridges, nine counties, three major airports, six commercial seaports, 1,400 miles of state highway, 18,000 miles of local streets, 28 bus, train and ferry systems - most of them jammed to capacity. More than 90,000 hours are lost to traffic delay every day in the Bay Area as the number of congested roadways grows each year.
In 1991, on southbound Interstate 680 at the Sunol Grade, the peak congested period lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., according to Caltrans' Highway Congestion Monitoring Report for that year. Today the hours of congestion run from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. with cars traveling an average of 20 to 25 miles per hour, said Rod Oto, a Caltrans senior engineer who tracks congestion levels.
The Bay Area's formula for congestion poison is no trade secret. Rapid population growth and a lack of funding to expand roads and public transit set the stage through the 1980s. Just as the region started waking up to its mobility crisis, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake socked a crippling blow to roads and bridges. The ongoing rebuilding and retrofitting served up a helping of construction-related congestion and drained away transportation funds. Replacing the collapsed Cypress structure alone cost $1 billion, and a major retrofit of the region's toll bridges is pegged at $2.2 billion.
Now the creation of jobs - a 6.42 percent increase between 1994 and 1996 - is putting more people on the road to work and more goods on the way to shipping ports and cargo planes.
The Bay Area's diverse …