An open house was held on May 22 for the public to see proposals to overhaul the I-80-Ashby interchange. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One of the most obvious challenges for largely bicycle and pedestrian-friendly West Berkeley is co-existing with a busy freeway not designed with pedestrians and bicycles in mind.

Planners from the Alameda County Transportation Commission and Caltrans are working with officials from Berkeley and Emeryville to improve safety and traffic flow where Interstate 80 meets Ashby Avenue (which is California State Route 13). An open house was held May 22 for the public to hear about some of the ideas in play. The areas around University Avenue and Gilman Street are also about to undergo change.

“The freeway was built to 1950s standards,” said Susan Chang, the planner overseeing the Ashby and Gilman projects for ACTC. “By current standards, this is not a conventional multi-modal facility.”

Planners are spending the next year or so working on the draft environmental analysis of the Ashby Street project, after which the public will have the chance to comment on one recommendation and at least one alternative plan.

Along with improving efficiency through the area for motor vehicles, one of the main goals is connecting bicyclists and pedestrians from the Shellmound Street area to the waterfront on the other side of I-80.

“Achieving these goals will require significant changes, including replacement of the existing bridges over the freeway,” said Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s traffic division manager. “Local land use along Shellmound has evolved significantly since the 1950s, from a low traffic, largely industrial area, to a high density and high traffic residential and commercial area, with very different access needs than what the interchange originally provided.”

There are two options for addressing pedestrians and bicycles in the area, both of which would be improvements, said Ben Gerhardstein, a co-founder of Walk Bike Berkeley and a member of ACTC’s stakeholder group on the Ashby project.

The first option would create one bridge across I-80 from Ashby, to Frontage Road, with space for motor vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

The second would be two separate bridges, separating motor traffic from pedestrians and bicyclists. Gerhardstein said “you’d have to take a more circuitous route” from Ashby, to get to the other side. “But you wouldn’t have to cross a bunch of traffic.”

“The key connection on the other side is going to be the Bay Trail, and the connections to the Emeryville and Berkeley marinas,” he said. “As we see changes to the waterfront, we’re going to see much more use of the trail.”

Construction will likely start during fall of 2022 and be complete in early 2025, according to the ACTC website. Funds for the project, which is estimated to cost $52 million, come mostly from 2014’s Measure BB, which Alameda County voters approved for transportation improvements. Some additional funding may come from other sources, depending on need.

A few miles to the north, the $55 million Gilman project would involve two roundabouts at I-80, one on either side of the freeway. The project is meant to reduce “higher than average rates of injury collisions,” while improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, according to the ACTC website. “The project will reduce congestion, shorten queues and minimize merging and turning conflicts.”

The project will include a pedestrian and bicycle overcrossing of I-80 and path through the interchange, and a two-way cycle track on Gilman Street, from the interchange to Fourth Street, where there will also be a new traffic signal.

Project documents describe the westbound off-ramp from I-80 as the most dangerous area of the interchange, with about twice the statewide average of collisions.

Between Ashby and Gilman, the University Avenue overpass will be replaced, though the project is in the early planning phase. The University Avenue overpass is 14 feet 4 inches high in the westbound direction. It’s 14 feet 5 inches high in the eastbound direction. The standard height of an overpass is 16 feet 6 inches.

Caltrans initially considered whether to raise the existing overpass or to replace it entirely. Spokeswoman Lindsey Hart said the agency has decided on the latter.

“We’re very, very early in the process,” she said. “The existing structure will come down and we’ll be creating something new.”

Caltrans is in the process of taking public input for the draft environmental report, though Hart said the agency doesn’t have any concrete dates for future public meetings.

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...