High Occupancy Toll Program is Advanced as Solution to HWY 101 Gridlock

HOT Optimized, San Mateo, HOV, SPUR, San Jose, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Highway 101, Bay Area news, High Occupancy Vehicle, congestion

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By Robert Carlsen

Highway 101, the conduit that connects hundreds of thousands of workers to their workplaces in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, is facing a future of unmitigated congestion with few viable and affordable alternatives. But panel members of a recent sit-down at the SPUR office in San Jose see a possible way out of the mess.

[contextly_sidebar id=”c645354b9752204635f52c779ca45ef0″]At the May 22 event, entitled “What Can Be Done About Highway 101,” John Ristow, director of planning and program development at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA); Jeff Hobson, deputy director of the advocacy nonprofit TransForm, based in Oakland; and Sandy Wong, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG), discussed strategies to alleviate the pain and suffering of transiting the increasingly gridlocked roadway.

Ristow posited that of the many possible ways of dealing with transportation issues in the region, allowing single drivers to also use the existing car pool lanes is the most affordable one. Referring to a recently released TransForm report, he said a high-tech system called the Optimized HOT (high-occupancy toll) express lane plan is the most viable. Single drivers would be required to use FastTrak transponders with overhead scanners extracting tolls for using the HOT lanes, the amount of which would vary depending on the day and time of day.

The report acknowledges that there is massive congestion on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, overcrowding on Caltrain and complaints from businesses that their employees can’t reliably get to work on time. Employers, particularly tech companies such as Google and Genentech, now run private transit systems to meet their employees’ demands. But, according to the report, those company shuttles, some carrying as many as 70 people, are stuck in the same traffic as solo drivers.

The interoperable HOT system, Ristow said, has been in use in Southern California (most notably on a 10-mile stretch of California State Route 91 in Orange County), although this new plan doesn’t require the construction of an additional lane, which can be quite costly.

Hobson said constructing a new carpool lane on Highway 101 in San Mateo County would cost approximately $150 million to $180 million (or about $10 million per mile). Converting an existing car pool lane into an Optimized HOT would cost around ten percent of that figure, and the resulting revenue gains could be put to immediate use to fund express buses, vanpools, rideshares and other options.

“We cannot build our way out of congestion,” said Hobson. “There are just not enough funds.”

“The Optimized HOT program would be a net positive revenue result from day one,” noted Ristow.

Ristow and Hobson confirmed that the first phase of Highway 101’s Optimized HOT plan is scheduled for the stretch between Whipple Avenue in Redwood City to the Interstate 380 junction in South San Francisco-San Bruno. Hobson also confirmed that San Mateo County is behind the current plan. He said that earlier this month C/CAG’s board of directors voted to move forward on a traffic study to test the feasibility of the plan.

However, before the project can proceed, a state law prohibiting conversion of an existing highway lane into an express lane must be repealed, or at least be temporarily waived to allow for a few demonstration projects, Hobson said.

Though Wong also confirmed C/CAG’s participation in the Optimized HOT plan study, she nonetheless expressed misgivings about essentially “charging taxpayers to use the lanes that they have already paid.” Wong reviewed several county projects under its existing Smart Corridor program, such as the construction of ramp metering accesses and incident management plans, which diverts traffic off 101 in case of major accidents to other transit options, including the adjacent El Camino Real.

Meanwhile, Hobson said the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has also agreed to study the Optimized HOT approach to highways 101 and 280 and is applying for a Caltrans grant.

While waiting for the state to grant tolling authority and to approve the conversion of existing auxiliary lanes into express lanes, Bay Area transportation agencies continue to devise an overall plan that would encompass a total of 550 miles of express lanes, said Hobson, and Ristow added that the VTA is encouraging support for testing the Optimized HOT approach for two short stretches of Interstates 680 and 880, though that plan would also require state legislation.

The transportation officials all agreed that converting an existing auxiliary lane or carpool lane into an Optimized HOT is a far cheaper alternative that produces a quicker return on investment than constructing a new lane. Plus, as Hobson reiterated, the savings in cost would ultimately result in funding other transportation alternatives, ultimately resulting in less traffic on 101.

In the meantime, Ristow said the VTA is continuing a plan to extend its carpool lane system on Highways 237, 85 and 101 in the coming year.

Graphic courtesy of TransForm

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