Blog En Route To A Bay Area HOT Lane Network

Construction began last week on a High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lane to serve carpoolers, transit and – for a price varying by miles travelled and time of day – solo drivers, on a 14-mile stretch of southbound I-680 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The highway connects the jobs-rich Silicon Valley region with populous East Bay communities to the north. Electronic tolling will be employed, using transponders and overhead gantries. Carpoolers will cover their onboard transponders to avoid being charged. Some commuters are expected to save 30 minutes in the express lane, while congestion will be eased in the general use lanes as well. It’s all part of a much broader, 25-year, $6.1 billion toll-financed plan to build, operate and maintain a Bay Area HOT lane system. The plan was developed by the nine-county Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The aim is creation of 800 miles of HOT lanes on the region’s highways to make driving and bus transit more predictable and reliable, while encouraging alternatives to peak-hour solo drives. As Gary Richards of the San Jose Mercury-News reports, the initiative is seen as a real game-changer:

Traffic officials described the Bay Area tolling plan in no uncertain terms: revolutionary, dramatic and bold. “The entire nation will be watching,” said Gene Fong, the California chief with the Federal Highway Administration, referring to transportation officials’ interest in the potential for widespread use of toll lanes. Added John Ristow, lead highway planner with the Valley Transportation Authority: “It’ll have as big of an impact as building BART in the ’60s. There will be such a dramatic change in the way people get around.”

HOT lanes are an example of what is called “congestion pricing,” which includes not only variably-priced lanes, but variably-priced highways and urban core parking. The road-pricing strategy continues to gain currency in the national media for its transformational potential. Last week, New York Times syndicated columnist David Brooks, in a widely-read piece titled, “A National Mobility Project,” wrote:

Americans now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, a figure expected to double by 2020. The U.S. population is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 42 years. American residential patterns have radically changed. Workplaces have decentralized. Commuting patterns are no longer radial, from suburban residences to central cities. Now they are complex weaves across broad megaregions. Yet the infrastructure system hasn’t adapted. The smart thing to do is announce a short-term infrastructure initiative to accelerate all those repair projects that can be done within a few years. Then, begin a long-term National Mobility Project.
Create a base-closings-like commission to organize federal priorities (Congress has forfeited its right to micromanage). Streamline the regulations that can now delay project approval by five years. Explore all the new ideas that are burgeoning in the transportation world – congestion pricing, smart highways, rescue plans for shrinking Midwestern cities, new rail and airplane technologies. When you look into this sector, you see we are on the cusp of another transportation revolution.

The Bay Area has already taken this kind of thinking to heart. This July, 2008 “principles” document from the MTC says the system will utilize existing rights-of-way and focus on corridors and so-called “commute sheds,” while reinvesting revenues where they’re raised and directing spending not only to system operations and maintenance, but also “non-highway options.” These are to include transit, and easing traffic bottlenecks for carpoolers and buses on arterial “collector” routes. The plan will be refined and overseen by the region’s Congestion Management Agencies (CMA), Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, and the Bay Area Toll Authority.
In addition to the work starting on I-680, HOT lanes are already being built on I-580. Among other planned projects in the network are HOT lanes for the I-880/Highway 237 interchange, the length of Highway 85, and Highway 101, from Morgan Hill to Palo Alto.
The Oakland Tribune’s editorial board explains why they think it’s all a ripping good idea:

Toll revenues would pay for construction of additional HOT lanes so that they would be available to motorists almost anywhere in the Bay Area. Today, carpool lanes often end near intersections and are missing altogether on many stretches of highway. Perhaps even more important than building new HOT lanes, the MTC’s plan would construct and improve key highway connectors throughout the Bay Area. All too often today, traffic bottlenecks occur near intersections where there are not enough lanes to accommodate carpools.
Another part of the MTC plan is the creation of an express bus system that would significantly enhance mass transit in many parts of the Bay Area. One of the major problems with bus transportation today is the lack of a continuous carpool or HOT-lane system. As a result, buses are forced to slow down to a crawl in many locations, especially at intersections of major highways. Also, there are not enough express buses. Most of them make so many stops along their routes that they are not useful for longer commutes. Express buses on a continuous HOT-lane system would be a great improvement and are likely to attract far more riders than they have today.

A full-on regional “system” approach is the way to implement HOT lanes, with an accent on better service delivery for transit, ride-share vehicles and solo drivers. It’s encouraging that HOT lanes are already implemented in a score of different locales across the U.S . and that more are coming.
Major metro regions that step up to the complex mobility challenge will reap economic benefits that laggard competitors won’t.