Contra Costa County, Calif., Transportation Authority Executive Director Randy Iwasaki talks about the six year, $1.3 billion plan to improve Highway 4’s reputation as a bottleneck. Iwasaki serves on the GRIDSMART Board of Directors.

Originally appeared in California Patchcar_driving_generic_shutterstock_130196291-1469114594-4979

Improvements hoped to turn around state Highway 4’s reputation as a bottleneck to the growing eastern parts of Contra Costa County were ushered in by local leaders Wednesday morning at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The event, which was held in view of the highway in Antioch, marked the recent completion of projects that various county, state and federal agencies have been collaborating on over six years.

Randell Iwasaki, Contra Costa Transportation Authority’s executive director, offered the various stakeholders in attendance for the ceremony pins emblazoned with “I Heart Highway 4.” “There was an ‘I Hate Highway 4’ website and a license plate,” he explained, adding that his agency’s goal has long been to reverse that sentiment.

Iwasaki said the stretch of highway was among the nation’s worst commutes during peak hours but an additional two lanes in each direction, new connector ramps and a BART extension are changing that. The highway went from four to eight lanes from Loveridge Road in Pittsburg to just west of state Highway 160 in Antioch. Additionally, four lanes occupy a previous two-lane stretch of the highway between Lone Tree Way and Balfour Road in Brentwood. One of the projects to improve the highway also added missing connector ramps at the Highway 160 interchange, not far from where the ceremony took place.

Iwasaki said the projects have been the result of partnerships with Caltrans, BART, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the California Transportation Commission, Federal Highway Administration and others. Elected officials who spoke during the event were quick to credit the county’s voters as well. More than a quarter of the highway improvement, $362 million, was funded through Measure J, a half-cent sales tax reauthorized by voters in 2004, and through the previous tax.

“Getting to this day hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been cheap and it hasn’t been quick,” Supervisor Federal Glover said, who explained that the improvements represent a combined investment of around $1.3 billion. Glover added, “The MVP in the partnership (behind the highway improvement) are the voters. … It’s no exaggeration that without their strong support we would not be here today.”

Part of the plan to enhance transportation in the region, the 10-mile extension of the BART system into eastern portions of the county, is not expected to be operational until winter 2017, Glover noted. The extension, which is adding stations along Highway 4 near Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg and Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch, has been referred to as eBART and will use new diesel-powered trains. “We went through an entire process trying to figure out how to get (a BART station) out here,” Pittsburg Mayor Ben Johnson said. “Hopefully they’ll change it (from eBART) to BART, because it’s one system.”

Joel Keller, a BART director, responded to the mayor’s remarks. “I think that’s probably appropriate,” he said. “We refer to it now as BART to Antioch and I think on the map you won’t be able to make a distinction.”

The trains along the extension will run on separate tracks past the Pittsburg/Bay Point station and will require that riders transfer at that station. But Keller said the transfer takes only 27 steps across the station
for a rider. Keller also commented that the Highway 4 improvements made it so even more extensions in the future remained a possibility. “(The projects) preserved the right of way to not only come here to Antioch, but to move farther east if we can ever find the financing, political support and ridership to justify it,” Keller said.

The improvements to the highway also came with a reconstruction of older infrastructure, including 21 bridges between Pittsburg and Brentwood. Iwasaki said the bridges were “built to last” using new materials, joking that if the infrastructure wasn’t still functional in 40 years that people should give him a call. In ending his remarks today, Iwasaki said he was confident the highway investments would have “a positive impact on the lives of our 250,000 neighbors in eastern Contra Costa County.”

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