Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Caldecott Tunnel 4th Bore

Posted by Roobs on August 10, 2010

Does Directional Traffic Congestion Affect Local Business Development?

A couple weeks ago, a friend made an interesting statement as we left an Oakland bar.  He said that he did not support the 4th bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, bringing the current three 2-lane tunnels to four.  He believes that the 4th bore is actually bad for Oakland business.

My friend stated that a 4th bore only benefits the reverse commute, meaning traffic headed into Contra Costa County and not Oakland.  Therefore, by making it easier to get to cities like Walnut Creek, we are taking away business from Oakland.  He was essentially making a direct correlation between directional traffic congestion and business development.

I thought a little about his statement and told him I disagreed and thought there was nothing terribly bad with the fourth bore project.  We pretty much left it at that and I didn’t think much of it until today.

My job often requires me to travel to Martinez and Walnut Creek and I take the Caldecott Tunnel often, usually during off commute hours.  I was driving by the construction taking place and thought again about my friend’s statement and realized how many factors would have to be proven in order to prove his argument.


For those who live outside of the Bay Area, the Caldecott Tunnel is a 6-lane tunnel currently made up of three 2-lane bores in the Berkeley Hills.  The tunnel connects Oakland to the cities of Contra Costa County, such as Walnut Creek.  The direction of the second, or middle, tunnel can be changed in an attempt to accommodate heavy traffic.    However, the Caldecott Tunnel is notorious for having slow traffic during commute hours, earning it the nickname “Caldecrawl” Tunnel by its regular users.

Construction of a fourth bore began in January of 2010 with majority of funding coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka Obama’s stimulus package).

My Friends Argument

Again, my friend believes that by constructing a fourth tunnel and making traffic easier for commuters to get into Contra Costa County, businesses will begin to leave or simply not go to Oakland because they will chose cities like Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill because it will now be easier to access those cities through the Caldecott Tunnel.

Here are my issues with this argument.

No Data

Currently, I can find no data that supports the idea that cities lose, retain or gain business based on ease of freeway commuter traffic alone.  This is slightly different than ease of freeway access.

Sure, the ease of freeway access is a benefit to business.  The easier access your business has to a freeway, the more potential customers you have access to and the easier it is for your workers to travel to work.  This is more true to industrial areas who require easy freeway access for trucks to freight goods across the region and country.

The problem with this part is that the 4th bore of the Caldecott Tunnel is not really increasing access to a freeway, either in Oakland or in Contra Costa County.  Despite my friend’s insistence, this 2-lane tunnel does not really qualify as an “additional” freeway.  Especially when you consider the fact that SR-24 on both ends of the tunnel is 8-lanes while the tunnel currently only accommodates 6-lanes of traffic.  This is not at all like the freeway expansion going on in Orange County (which I oppose). There is no new I-x80 cutting through either Downtown Oakland or Contra Costa County and they are not increasing the lanes on the entirety of SR-24.  Access to the freeway and capacity remain the same in every city.

Even if it was true…

Even if we were to say that it is true that there is a direct correlation between the ease of commuter freeway traffic and local business growth, you would need to prove several other factors have less of an affect on local business growth than traffic congestion.

For example, if this was true, then the current design of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge would also be bad for Oakland.  This is because the current design of the new bridge eliminates one lane of traffic in both directions compared to the new span.  The current span has five lanes of traffic in each direction and the new span will only have four.  The commute into Oakland will be bottlenecked at Treasure Island as traffic merges into less lanes.

Also, this argument assumes two things.  1) that the majority of west-bound traffic are commuters heading to Oakland and not San Francisco and 2) the majority of Oakland’s business workforce comes from non-residents (outside of Oakland).

Here is a thought experiment:

Let’s say Oakland has a non-resident workforce of 100,000.  Of that 40% come in from outside of Oakland.  Of that 40%, 70% come from neighboring East Bay cities, such as Berkeley, San Leandro and Hayward.  Another 10% come from San Francisco and 20% come from Contra Costa County.  In this scenario, only 8,000 or 8% of Oakland’s total workforce comes from Contra Costa County.

Maybe this thought experiment is completely wrong and the vast majority of Oakland’s workforce actually does come from outside its borders.  But that would be one of several factors that would need to be looked at.

Further, BART has also made it easier for commuters to get into Contra Costa County as well as into Oakland on the reverse commute.  But has this actually made it easier for Contra Costa Residents to get into San Francisco for work?  Where has been the mass exodus of businesses leaving to Contra Costa because BART made it easier for workers to travel there?  Or is it something else that’s really driving the businesses that do leave Oakland?

Finally and in a related point, you would need to prove that traffic congestion affects business growth or retention more than a city’s business environment in general, such as taxes, incentives and customer and worker base.

Right now, Oakland has seen a big boost in restaurant business with new restaurants opening in Downtown and Uptown.  Are they moving because its easier to them to drive from San Francisco or Walnut Creek into Downtown Oakland?  Or are they moving because its cheaper for them to buy or lease property and conduct business in Oakland vs. San Francisco?

You could say that Walnut Creek is cheaper to do business in than Oakland, so why not skip Oakland all together and open up a Michael Minna in Walnut Creek?  Maybe its because the demand in Oakland for nice restaurants and its proximity to San Francisco mean it offers a better overall environment to do business than Walnut Creek.

You could say something similar about commercial business in Oakland.  It is true that Oakland has a vacancy problem in its Downtown and has been struggling, like most cities, to retain commercial tenants.  A lot of businesses have been moving to other cities, such as Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill instead of Oakland.  But is this really because it is or would be easier to commute to Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill than Oakland?  Or is it because Contra Costa cities have more readily available Class-A office space at a cheaper rate than Oakland?

In Conclusion

Overall, I disagree with my friends statement.  Even if it was proven that there is some correlation between traffic congestion and business growth and retention, on its own, I believe that such a correlation would be negligible compared to the other factors that go into business development.  And if businesses do begin to leave Oakland en mass following the 4th bore’s completion, it seems more likely it would be the result of several factors making Contra Costa more amenable to businesses and Oakland’s inability to create a better business environment than the ease of the commute alone.

But the severe lack of data on this subject really perks my academic curiosity.  I believe that some transit enthusiast or planning student should take the time and attempt to answer these questions.  The answers would not just be important for the debate in this post but would be a great service to planners across the country dealing with the increasing problem of how best to address our infrastructure that annually surpasses its capacity.

In the end, I believe the Caldecott Tunnel 4th bore at worst, does little to either improve or hurt businesses in either Oakland or Contra Costa County on its own.  At best, it just makes the already really bad commute a little better.


One Response to “Caldecott Tunnel 4th Bore”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Reuben Duarte, Reuben Duarte. Reuben Duarte said: Cadecott Tunnel 4th Bore. Does Directional Traffic Congestion Affect Local Business Development? […]

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