A mistimed Caltrans light exacerbates traffic in East Palo Alto because it can turn red when all other East Palo Alto lights along University Ave are synchronized at green.
This year East Palo Alto seems to have had worsened rush hour traffic - particularly in the mornings - on University Ave, Pulgas Ave, and neighborhood streets. I have personally experienced this in January this year when I was waiting in a queue of ~30 cars waiting to make a left turn from Pulgas southbound onto East Bayshore Road; it added around 15 minutes to my commute. I also experienced morning traffic at around 9am with cars queued up on University Ave between Donohoe St and Runnymede St.
I have heard from neighbors who feel that the localized traffic in East Palo Alto is currently worse than pre-pandemic levels, even though the regional traffic on the highways and in other areas is still much better than pre-pandemic levels. This seems to point to some problem in East Palo Alto that has been introduced during the pandemic.
On our February 15, 2023 East Palo Alto Public Works & Transportation Commission meeting, we were given an oral report by Kevin Lewis (Public Works Supervisor) about the state of traffic in the city. Kevin stated that one of the problems that is inducing backups along University Ave southbound in the mornings is the mistimed traffic light at University Ave and Highway 101 Southbound (marked in the map above).
By the way, this is all public info and the video recording is available on the City website here, towards the last third of the meeting.
Our Public Works Supervisor mentioned that the Caltrans-owned traffic light has a fiber optic cable which connects it to the Willow Road / Highway 101 traffic light, which then connects to the East Palo Alto traffic light network. However, during the construction of the Willow Road Interchange Replacement Project which completed in August 2019, the fiber optic cable was severed. This resulted in a a single traffic light that is not connected to the East Palo Alto traffic light network. This means that a driver going southbound along University Ave from Bay Road or the Dumbarton Bridge can encounter a series of synchronized green lights, and then encounter a queue of vehicles backed up by the mistimed Caltrans traffic light. In other words, this is a single point of failure because the benefits of the synchronized University Ave traffic lights being green is negated by the single unsychronized red traffic light which backs up traffic through all of the green lights up to Runnymede St.
East Palo Alto Public Works has access to the Caltrans traffic light programming box, so they have been manually setting the timing. However, the light constantly falls out of sync and this is not a sustainable solution.
Kevin Lewis mentioned that EPA Public Works needs help coordinating with Caltrans, which is very difficult to work with; it is also a state entity which probably means that in its order of prioritization, this is a very low priority problem to solve. Moreover, EPA Public Works has had difficulty working with Palo Alto Public Works, and the two cities' traffic light networks still do not talk to each other.
Part of a Larger Problem
Reconnecting this single traffic light is not going to make all traffic disappear, but it will remove the lowest-hanging fruit of one single point of failure in our traffic system. This light does not just impact East Palo Alto residents. It also impacts commuters from the East Bay, given that around 70% of traffic (pre-pandemic) on University Ave is from cut-through traffic (East Palo Alto Mobility Study, Page 8). This also impacts commuters from Palo Alto driving northbound along University Ave, as the Caltrans traffic light affects traffic going in both directions; it is not uncommon to see a queue of cars around 50 - 100 cars long going northbound along University Ave to enter Highway 101 or continue further to Highway 84 Dumbarton Bridge.
Just as East Palo Alto and its neighboring cities worked together to form the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to prevent flooding, I think we need a partnership to solve this localized traffic issue which also includes the state-level Caltrans. I wanted to reiterate that this is not going to remove traffic, but it will help us utilize our major arterial road to the best of its ability and in the process remove some cut-through traffic from neighborhood streets.