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SF considers paid express lanes on highways to ease traffic congestion

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority is considering creating express lanes along US Highway 101, seen above, and Interstate-280 to ease traffic congestion. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco may see paid express lanes on its oft-clogged highways in an effort to combat traffic congestion.

When the San Francisco County Transportation Authority staff gave its governing board a sneak peek at a study to create carpool lanes on Highway 101, as well as Interstate Highway 280, on Dec. 5, transportation staffers also revealed they are considering turning those carpool lanes into paid high-occupancy vehicle express lanes.

High-occupancy vehicle lanes and paid express lanes may replace carpool lanes along Interstate-280 and US Highway 101 in San Francisco’s southeast, shown here. (Courtesy San Francisco County Transportation Authority)

The transportation authority must net approval from its board, which is made up of members of the Board of Supervisors, before any carpool or paid lanes are created.

The notion of charging drivers to use an express lane met heat from supervisors, who earlier this month voted against funding $4 million to study express lanes in the next phase of the study.

The supervisors voted 5-4 in favor of funding the study, but with the absence of two supervisors were unable to garner the necessary six-vote majority.

Tilly Chang, executive director of the transportation authority, told the San Francisco Examiner she may seek that funding a third time from the board in February.

“We were presenting … what we believe are the more promising options,” Chang said.

Though those options garnered support from Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the transportation authority board’s chair, at the transportation authority’s regular meeting, Supervisor Ahsha Safai questioned what has been dubbed the “U.S. 101/I-280 Managed Lanes Project.”

“It makes no sense to me,” Safai said, particularly since the express lanes may be created on Interstate 280.

The project would see express lanes — which are hybrid carpool lanes and paid lanes — created along southbound I-280 in San Francisco, and portions of northbound I-280, as well as northbound Highway 101 and a segment of southbound 101, stretching from the San Mateo County line to AT&T Park. Studies for the project began in late 2015, according to Chang.

Chang told the Examiner if the project was enacted, some portions of the highways would see some existing lanes repurposed to be express lanes, as well as new lanes created on the shoulder of the freeway.

At the Dec. 5 transportation authority meeting, Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, whose district includes the Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods, objected to the plan as well. Sheehy voiced concern that congestion lanes would create traffic woes that would ripple into city neighborhoods.

“District 8 and District 11 are impacted by what happens to 280,” Sheehy said. “Traffic has gotten bad.”

The critics on the board said I-280 should not be the focus of an express lane study, and said it does not address downtown traffic congestion.

“I would offer that downtown is moving toward 280 at a rapid clip,” Peskin rebuffed, arguing that downtown traffic is already there, and must be managed soon.

Senior Transportation Planner Andrew Heidel presented the need for carpool and express lanes at the transportation authority board’s meeting.

Heidel told the board, “Traffic in San Francisco is bad and it’s getting worse… However, there are many empty seats in cars, buses and vans driving on our roadways.”

Those empty seats should be occupied in an effort to reduce the number of cars on freeways, which would lessen traffic congestion, he argued.

No carpool lanes exist on Highway 101 north of Redwood City, according to the transportation authority. Such lanes did exist on I-280 in the 1980s, but were removed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Supervisor Jane Kim asked Heidel what agency or authority would administer the revenue from the express lanes.

“We’re not sure yet,” Heidel answered. “That’s one item still under study.” Fees also have not yet been established.

Heidel rebuffed any idea that express lanes were about making a profit for agencies. “We let demand manage the prices,” he said, and explained that highways move people most efficiently when traffic moves at 45 miles per hour, so the express lanes would likely be crafted to “keep people moving at 45 mph.”

Any funding garnered, he said, would likely be used to pay for transportation, bicycle and other road improvements aimed at easing traffic congestion.

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