Bay Area Adds Express Lanes, New Pricing Model to Ease Traffic Congestion

An additional 125 miles of express lanes could charge drivers up to $6 to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic while helping reduce ever-lengthening commute times.

by Gary Richards, The Mercury News / April 18, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — If you’re a solo driver willing to pay a toll to scoot around the Bay Area’s awful traffic backups, a faster futures lies ahead.

More express lanes are coming and they’ll be easier to use.

The lanes are expected to help reduce ever-lengthening commute times as more Bay Area residents are pushed farther from their jobs by escalating home prices and rental increases. Over the last decade, Silicon Valley commute times have increased 17 percent, adding an average of 43 minutes weekly per commuter, according to the 2018 Joint Venture Silicon Valley Index.

The Bay Area has had nearly 90 miles of express lanes phased in since 2010. But another 125 miles could open in the next two to three years on the busiest freeways — 80, 237, 680 and 880 — as the region pushes toward its goal of having 550 miles of toll lanes by 2035.

Planning is already underway on Highway 85 through the South Bay and on 101 from Gilroy to 380 on the Peninsula. And 87, 280 and even I-205 west of Stockton are on the waiting list.

The long-awaited groundbreaking for the express-carpool lane on northbound Interstate 680 up the Sunol Grade is Thursday. The nine-mile trek from Auto Mall Parkway to Highway 84 through Fremont is horrendous. It was already bad in 1999 when it was the only stretch of freeway to topple the drive to the Bay Bridge as the most congested location.

Since then, it’s gotten bad everywhere and today 680 is the fourth most congested freeway. Speeds there can drop well under 35 mph as early as 2:30 p.m. and continuing until 8:20 p.m.

“I am overjoyed at the news that 680 will finally get more lanes,” said Tim Goncharoff of Santa Cruz. “Commuting on that stretch of highway is hell.”

Traffic experts say these pay-as-you go lanes won’t cure traffic woes, but they will offer some drivers an alternative to creeping along at 25 mph. Tolls can hit around $6 on southbound 680, but the average is under $3.

“I think we need to look for marginal gains everywhere we can — ramp metering, express lanes, they all matter,” said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, pointing to heavy use on Interstate 580 through the Tri-Valley. “I’m hopeful we can also see 880 and northbound 680 drop off the congested list as new express lane lanes come on line in the next couple years.”

Drivers will need a FasTrak flex tag to take any express route from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tolls will vary by traffic. The more cars, the higher the fee. Carpoolers, motorcyclists and those with electric cars with stickers will ride free but need to set their transponders to the 2 or 3 position. If it remains on 1, they’ll be charged as a solo driver.

Retired Caltrans traffic operations manager David Seriani predicts the new lane on 680 should help “but I would expect pockets of congestion to remain just north of 84 and also on eastbound 84 due to high demand.”

The double white lines on southbound 680 will be repainted to a single white line, allowing commuters in both directions to enter and exit in the express lanes at any spot. This will likely be the norm on all future express lanes.

Longer ramps and merging lanes will also be a part of the new look heading north on 680, plus interchange upgrades at 84-680.

The 680 expansion will be ready in late 2020 and cost $107 million. But by late next year extending the 237 express lanes to Mathilda Avenue should be done as well as a biggie — Interstate 880 from Oakland to Milpitas.

Filling in gaps on 680 in Contra Costa County and adding toll lanes on Interstate 80 could occur in 2020, along with the approaches to the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges. And plans call for extending the 680 express lanes further north to Alcosta Boulevard in Alameda County, with work possibly beginning in 2021.

Some money comes from Prop. 1B bonds approved a decade ago. More funds may come from county transportation sales taxes, the new state gas tax and from bridge toll hikes, if they are approved by voters in June.

But today the relief spotlight finally shines on northbound 680, where for nearly 20 years drivers have been in a state of cursing despair.

“It’s obscene,” says Kimberly Cook. “Taking 1½ hours to get over the Sunol Grade is ridiculous.”

Join Gary Richards for an hourlong chat noon Wednesday at www.mercurynews.com/live-chats. Look for Gary Richards at Facebook.com/mr.roadshow or contact him at mrroadshow@bayareanewsgroup.com.

©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.