City staffers say that roundabouts on Gilman Street at I-80 will improve the interchange in several important ways. Image source: City of Berkeley
City staff say roundabouts on Gilman Street at I-80 will improve the interchange in several important ways. This draft design depicts, in white, the roundabouts and roadway that pass under the freeway at ground level. The green lines show the potential alignment of the bike and pedestrian route through the interchange. Image: Parsons Brinckerhoff/Caltrans

Earlier this month, after Berkeleyside’s most recent article on Whole Foods coming to Gilman, several readers asked in the comments section about the status of a city project to reconfigure the intersections at Gilman and Interstate 80.

According to a city flier from last fall, the area has become “overwhelmed” due to multiple commercial venues in its vicinity, such as Golden Gate Fields racetrack, Target in Albany, residential neighborhoods in Berkeley and Albany, and major recreational spots such as the Bay Trail and the Gilman Street Fields. Stop signs on highway off-ramps cause back-ups onto the interstate. The right-of-way for motorists “is confusing, leading to conflict and collisions.”

Berkeleyside readers called the area “a ridiculous mess” and “the most dysfunctional intersection I have seen anywhere in the United States.”

Other commenters said they hoped improvements can happen before Whole Foods goes in: “Traffic is already bad enough. Cars go too fast, the homeless push their carts down the middle of the street, and pedestrians don’t bother with cross walks because for the most part there aren’t any.”

Said another: “The city, state and feds need to get their collective act together right now to install a functional rotary at the I-80 Gilman exit with safe bike and pedestrian bypass. Any prospective increase in traffic through that zone — which the Whole Foods project will certainly generate — demands a responsible and immediate solution.”

Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s transportation division manager, said concept design is well under way, but project funding is somewhat uncertain due to the failure of Measure B1 to pass in the fall. (Measure B1 would have doubled the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax and extended it in perpetuity. It was expected to raise about $8 billion in its first 30 years. The measure failed to reach a two-thirds majority by just a few hundred votes.)

The Gilman Street project is estimated to cost about $15.7 million, including environmental approvals, detailed design work, right-of-way acquisition, and the actual construction of the roundabouts, along with a separated bike and pedestrian pathway through the interchange, said Javandel.

The Alameda County Transportation Commission, the official project lead, is in the process of looking for federal funding, because the interstate is part of the federal system.

Javandel said the current proposal includes two roundabouts, one at the east side of the freeway and the other at the west. The roundabouts “would allow traffic to flow more smoothly. Off-ramp traffic would flow, and local street traffic would flow. Nobody would have stop signs.”

He called the roundabouts “the most effective traffic control we could have.”

Javandel said the intersection as it is, with approaches from frontage roads, the freeway and the legs of Gilman, has too many variables for traffic signals to work well. He pointed to the example of the traffic signals at Central Avenue and I-80 in Richmond to show what can go wrong with stop lights: “Traffic through there tends to back up. They get a lot of gridlock there at peak times. If we put in signals here, we would have the same problems as there and probably worse.”

Currently, he said, the county is waiting for Caltrans approval of the concept. As part of the analysis, Caltrans will look at how the intersection would work with signals and with roundabouts. That process is set to wrap up this summer. (See the concept design here.)

Assuming the concept is approved, the next step will include environmental approvals, perhaps taking 18 months, and detailed design plans.

“We’re a few years out, and trying to find funding may be the most challenging part of it to keep the ball rolling,” said Javandel. But he described the interchange as a “major candidate” for funding, and one of the county transportation commission’s high priority projects.

The project has been underway for close to 10 years, Javandel estimated. A federal grant from several years back gave efforts a $1.2 million boost, and the city has pitched in $300,000 to work on the current phase. (That leaves the project about $14.5 million short of its goal.)

Javandel noted that, though many people think of the intersection as dangerous, it’s not, statistically speaking, above the norm.

“It feels uncomfortable, so people are more cautious there,” he said. “But the crash rate given the volume is not beyond the range of what’s normal.”

If something around town has you mystified, write to Berkeleyside at (subject line: “Ask Berkeleyside”) and we’ll do our best to track down an answer.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...