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Driver Fees Could Be Radical Solution For Livermore Valley Gridlock

LIVERMORE (KPIX 5) -- It's the commute that now famously starts before dawn, streaming out of the Central Valley, over the Altamont Pass and down into the Livermore Valley.

That's where commuter Mike Blanton joins the fray.

"It's probably an hour 30, an hour 30," said Blanton. "Depending on how bad the traffic is."

It's not just commuters watching traffic back up. Former KCBS airborne traffic reporter Alan Brooks has watched as well while flying overhead.

"580 through the Livermore Valley has gotten exponentially worse in recent years," said Brooks.

For anyone who lives here or is passing through, 580 has become a rolling nightmare. Even the experts agree.

"The transportation system is a very non-linear system," explained Professor Alexandre Bayen, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies. "It operates very efficiently until it reaches its capacity, and then things can degrade really really quickly."

His bad news for drivers?

"Demand has risen so much in California, that, in a sense, we have reached capacity. We can't build more freeway lanes, we can't build double-deckers, it's just not possible," said Bayen.

Interstate 580 is a perfect example of this problem. It's a road that essentially started as the Lincoln Highway in the early 1910s. It grew up a bit in the '30s, and was transformed again in the 1970s, about the time California built much of its current highway system.

Eventually, however, 580 simply ran out of room while the population just kept growing.

"When I got out of school in the 80s, 70 percent of that valley was farmland," Brooks noted while flying above the region in his airplane. "Now you can practically walk across it rooftop to rooftop. It is so developed out there."

The inevitable result was serious gridlock on the corridor. Experts say dramatic solutions may be needed.

"Ultimately, one has to regulate traffic," said Professor Bayen. "The reason people use the road so much is because the road is free."

That kind of change is the direction California is heading; HOV lanes requiring greater occupancy, more lanes converted to buses only, and possibly a fee for drivers who use highways at peak commute times.

"If you have a road charge fee, then you can start to push the buttons so that people realize that making a certain choice of a certain route at a certain time will cost you more money," explained Bayen. "That's how you start to solve the problem."

These ideas have been coming down the road for over a decade. In 2005, Livermore announced a theoretical high-occupancy toll lane. It's now open, but congestion continues to worsen.

The continual growth of congestion across the Bay Area has traffic planners thinking of highways more like another precious California resource: water.

"Well, freeway capacity is an equally valuable commodity in California," said Bayen. "Ultimately it needs to be regulated in the same manner, for the greater good."

The future, put simply, is more traffic, and quite possibly, the end of what drivers have long thought of as the freeway.

"The real question is, how do you do this in a way that people are willing to do it?" asked Bayen.

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