Freeway could become toll-way

The Bay Area’s solo drivers may soon be able to bypass freeway gridlock by buying their way into the carpool lane.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will vote Wednesday on a $228 billion long-range plan that includes allocating $6 billion toward building a network of high-occupancy toll lanes.

HOT lanes, which have operated in Southern California for the last decade, allow drivers to pay a variable fee based on congestion in order to drive in the high-occupancy lane. The first Bay Area HOT lanes are expected to open in the next two years on Interstate 680 over the Sunol Grade, Interstate 580 through the Tri-Valley, and U.S. Highway 101 and state Highway 85 in Santa Clara County.

If the first of the HOT lanes are successful, one would be added along U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo County from San Francisco International Airport within the next decade, said MTC spokesman John Goodwin.

Within 25 years, the lanes on Highway 101 would extend north up to where Interstate 280 begins in San Francisco, Goodwin said. Meanwhile, carpool lane occupancy requirements are expected to increase to three people per vehicle on some Bay Area highways by 2015 and on all stretches by 2040.

“In most cases, these would be additional lanes. There may be instances where existing carpool lanes would be converted into HOT lanes,” Goodwin said. While MTC officials have not discussed toll pricing, the revenue from using the lanes would be used to finance expansion of the carpool lane network and express bus service.

“These buses, of course, would use the HOT lane to get from place to place more quickly,” Goodwin said.

Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation who oversaw the 1993 study that coined the term HOT lanes, said the idea has been unfairly criticized as elitist.

“The negative label that’s always attached is ‘Lexus Lanes.’ People think that this will be something only for the well-off,” he said. Studies conducted by San Diego State University and others found that while 20 percent of users are daily commuters, the other 80 percent pay to use the lane once a week or so for important trips, Poole said.

“The Bay Area is one of the top metro areas nationwide in terms of intensity of congestion. This actually offers the hope that congestion will actually be lessened in the coming years,” he said. “There’s nothing else on the drawing board that can make that promise.”

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

Where are the nation’s HOT lanes?

High-occupancy roads may help fight gridlock

Existing networks: Orange County, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis

Under construction: Washington, D.C., Miami, Bay Area

Planning stages: Dallas, Houston

Source: Reason Foundation

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