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El Camino Real Scheduled for Multi-Million Dollar Improvements

The King's Highway moves into a new age with the help of CalTrans.

A route Spanish missionairies once sprinkled with mustard seeds will be getting a heavenly makeover beginning next year.

A small portion of El Camino Real, the 600 mile north-south path originally created to link California's 21 missions, four presidios, and several pueblos between San Diego and Sonoma, has received a construction infusion of over $11 million, an amount expected to bring the historic road into the 21st century.

Beginning in mid-2012, expecting to finish in early 2013, an upgrade of the traffic operating system will; introduce closed-circuit television cameras at key locations above the traffic; install vehicle detection sensors to monitor immediate volumes of traffic; improve existing traffic signals; and lay fiber-optic cable along the route so all the new devices can talk with each other.

The work will take place in San Mateo County between San Bruno and Redwood City, specifically between Highway 380 and Whipple Avenue, a distance of about 14 miles. In the days of the missionairies, that was about a half-day's trek by horseback. Today, even with stoplights, we can make the same journey in about 29 minutes.

On average, more than 30,000 cars use the El Camino on a daily basis, about 2,650 per hour during a peak period.

"There are a lot of commuters on the road, with the BART/Caltrain station in Millbrae," says Gidget Navarro, a spokeswoman with Caltrans. "And there are so many cities that run along the El Camino, a lot of drivers will use it just to get from city to city."

Curiously, Caltrans found that 51% of all the drivers on the El Camino are traveling north on the road, 49% south. Odd.

It's a road that can be six lanes wide at times - in San Mateo, in San Bruno - and at other times, barely stretch to two - in Burlingame, for instance, where large, mature tree trunks literally protrude out into the slow lane of traffic.

"They've been there for years and years and years, and a lot of the locals do not want them taken down," says Navarro. "We approached the city of Burlingame to have some of the trees removed, because of the problems they cause with the sewers and the drainage system from the road, but because the public was against it, the city decided not to have them removed."

The new cameras will not be so-called 'red-light' cameras, recording the driving activity of scofflaws. Rather, a video feed from the cameras will be fed back to Caltrans' Transportation Management Center in Oakland, allowing traffic engineers to keep an eye on the local thoroughfare at all times.

At the present time, there is no intent to put that video feed online, something Caltrans already does in many other parts of California.

Joan S. Dentler (Editor) November 01, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Thanks Dave....this is a big step toward improving mid-Peninsula traffic flow. I'd travel ECR anyday before 101 once these improvements are made.
jann November 01, 2011 at 05:46 PM
My commute from Belmont to Palo Alto is half the distance if I take ECR vs. 280, but the time it currently takes on ECR is prohibitive. I'll be happy to alternate my route when the upgrades are completed.
Jim Somers November 01, 2011 at 08:03 PM
With improvements ending at Whipple, 98% of the Redwood City stretch of ECR is excluded from this plan. That's a shame because the worst ECR traffic patterns are from Jefferson, south to the five points area, and throughout all of Menlo Park. Perhaps the city can, jointly with Atherton and Menlo Park, write a grant request to DOT for funds to complete the project at least through the south end of Menlo Park, the stretch of ECR that badly needs these kinds of systems.
Bob Winters November 01, 2011 at 08:23 PM
I agree Jim, Redwood City between Whipple and Woodside Rd and downtown Menlo Park are the biggest bottlenecks. Since there is no opportunity for widening, traffic monitoring and control would be the only improvement. Hopefully the new access lanes on 101 between MP and PA will help make 101 a better option.
Matt November 01, 2011 at 09:42 PM
How are these improvements going to improve the flow of traffic? They are not increasing capacity. Sensors and cameras do not lessen traffic. Another multi million dollar project that won't make it any better for the average joe to get from point A to B.
Bob Cancilla November 01, 2011 at 09:44 PM
I agree with both Jim and Bob, an area of deep concern to me is from Whipple Ave to beyond Santa Cruz Ave., in Menlo Park. I seriously hope that something can be done on this area of ECR. I have lived in this area for over 50 years and don't remember much of anything being done on that section of road. If it was, it had to be many years ago.
DanC November 02, 2011 at 01:52 AM
With the Calif budget in dire straits, this $11.2M appears to be a frivolous expenditure on some kind of spurious technology that, to my way of thinking, would only work WITHIN cities along ECR. What about the long stretch from Howard to 2nd Ave? How're you going to coordinate that? Let's face it: While ECR has a State highway designation, it is merely a wide street all along the Peninsula. It's not even an expressway, no limited access whatever. This project is a boondoggle of the worst kind. But here's the worst thing. There are other plans for ECR. There's a proposal to severely decrease the flow of auto traffic on ECR with designated lanes for buses and bicycles. If that goes through then the optical cable and sensors and closed circuit television and whatnot won't be worth a plug nickel. We can sit and watch the chaos here in San Mateo as ECR is narrowed to two lanes on either side while bus lanes sit empty most of the time as SamTrans manages to get a couple of express buses through every hour. Bus lanes in SF, yes, but here?
Linda November 02, 2011 at 08:40 AM
How will these new monitoring systems make a difference in traffic flow? Upgrading the traffic signals can help a bit, but without changing access points or adding lanes, I don't see how this project will have a significant impact.
Concerned Taxpayer November 02, 2011 at 03:46 PM
More waste! $11M will not go very far with what CalTrans/union contractors charge for their services. I would like to see some work on the RWC portion of ECR mentioned above. The light timing is terrible and there are a few turn lanes that need to be lengthened or eliminated altogether. The MP debacle could also use better light management and they should eliminate the Red Light Cameras as they have caused many to stop too early causing accidents. Besides, the tickets are often found to be illegal and are tossed out.
Steve Hayes November 02, 2011 at 05:03 PM
An easy solution would be to remove one third of the stop lights - every light impedes traffic. Also eliminate the short left turn lanes that clog up traffic - there are two of those in RWC.
Mike Swire November 02, 2011 at 05:40 PM
Increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2011/10/only-hope-reducing-traffic/315/. We already have two N/S freeways on the Peninsula. We don't need a third.
Gladwyn d'Souza November 02, 2011 at 08:21 PM
The Institute of Traffic Engieneers promised to build us out of congestion in 1933. Trillions of dollars late... make sure you send your donation to your favorite school that Caltrans hires from. This itteration of Building us Out Of Congestion starts with Intelligent Transportation Systems a $1B federal program. In SMC it becomes, through CCAG, a $20M Smart Corridor program. Belmont signed of on it early this year. http://www.belmont.gov/Upload/Document/D240006718/4G-CC-02082011.pdf "The purpose of this project is to reduce traffic congestion, improve traffic operations, and optimize existing roadway facilities in San Mateo County and the region..." In other words congestion relief will come from congesting your street. The Smart Corridors document looks at moving traffic on all streets between 101 and the Alameda when major arterials like 101 or ECR are backed up. Details in other council minutes. Since the federales rolled out ITS in 2006 you can get free aps, like Waze, or paid aps like TomTom, which accomplish traffic and pollution on your street without the taxpayer outlay. But hey we are rich and can afford screwups.
Glenn September 30, 2012 at 05:44 PM
This is all about big brother type surveillance and has nothing to do with traffic.

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