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Tuesday August 21 10:17 AM ET

At Last! Silicon Valley Drivers Find the Fast Lane

By Michael Kahn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – It took a dot-com bust, a stock market swoon and tens of thousands of layoffs, but Silicon Valley drivers are — finally — enjoying life in the fast lane.

Take the highway south from San Francisco to the heart of Silicon Valley, past the high-tech headquarters of such industry giants as Intel and Applied Materials, and you’ll find the commute time has shriveled in the past few months.

And while the heady days of soaring share prices and IPO riches may be a distant memory, so too are the choked highways, blaring horns and crawling traffic that commuters said made driving to work a nightmare experience.

“The traffic now moves around 80 miles-per-hour but before it used to be more of a crawl,” said Steve Faig, a finance manager at Applied Materials. He said his 45-mile commute from San Francisco to Santa Clara now takes about an hour compared to twice that a year and a half ago.

State traffic officials hesitate to pin the free-flowing traffic on any one factor, noting that the summer vacation period is often lighter than other times of year and that a new ”fast trak” electronic toll system was helping to cut toll plaza bottlenecks.

A DOWNSIDE BENEFIT?

But many drivers are convinced the stock market downturn has been the key to unbuckling gridlock on area roads.

In fact, when traffic was clogged at its worst back in 1999, Faig said he should have taken that as a sign the market was overheating and it was time to sell a good chunk of his stock portfolio.

“If we were smarter we could have used that as an indicator of the stock market,” Faig said. “When it was the most brutal we should have been selling our stock.”

Commuters say the roads began to clear about the same time dot-com firms hit the skids last year, leaving tens of thousands of workers in small Internet start-ups and other high-tech firms without jobs to drive to.

And once major Silicon Valley stalwarts such as Hewlett Packard, Intel and Cisco joined the race to slice jobs, there has been even more room on Bay Area roads.

“You hear about the Cisco’s and the big ones but when you add up all the smaller ones you have a real downturn,” said KCBS traffic reporter Ron Lyons, who has chronicled the area’s commute for 11 years.

Things are so smooth nowadays that the early morning commuter backup has disappeared on the congested Bay Bridge connecting Oakland to San Francisco, Lyons added.

“The last two or three months have been very light,” Lyons said. “When you have no back-up at the Bay Bridge at 7 a.m. that is a story.”

DRIVING NEVER A BREEZE

No one is suggesting that driving is a breeze in California, which remains overburdened with traffic. The Bay Bridge alone bears more than 280,000 cars each day.

Statewide, statistics show the average California commute is getting longer at 27 minutes in 2000, up from 24.6 minutes in 1990. Rising real estate prices and greater population has also forced more Californians to live farther from their jobs, making commutes longer.

But in the San Francisco area, at least for now, drivers are relishing what appears to be a sudden break in the logjam.

“Since I moved to San Francisco in late January from Santa Clara I have definitely noticed the difference,” said commuter Geoff Borlet. “Back then I would never take highway 101” — one of the area’s busiest stretches. “Now I take it every night.”

Officials caution the traffic turnaround may not last. Colin Jones, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, agreed traffic has definitely been a lot lighter in the past few months.

He cited the typically slow summer months as a reason, but added that figures definitely showed the Bay Area commute was at its worst during the height of the Internet frenzy as new workers and new cars jammed the roadways. In 2000, for example, traffic congestion soared 38 percent from 1999 — the largest one-year increase ever — as the costs to the region rose to $2.1 million from $1.48 million in lost work hours and other costs, he said.

“That was the peak of the economic expansion and now we are leveling off,” said Jones. “It has kind of been surprising but I don’t want to say permanent.’

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