Traffic moves along Interstate 280 as viewed from the 18th street overpass on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (DavÌd RodrÌguez/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF considers letting solo drivers pay fee to use carpool lanes

San Francisco may soon create new carpool lanes on U.S. Highway 101 and U.S. Interstate 280 that allow solo-car drivers to zip past traffic — for a price.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority board approved $4 million last week to study the conversion of existing southbound and northbound lanes on U.S. Highway 101 and U.S. Interstate 280 into high-occupancy vehicle lanes, planner-speak for express or carpool lanes.

While still a twinkle in planners’ eyes, the new express lanes are aimed at easing projected new traffic snarls. By 2040, transportation authority planners project an additional 100,000 daily vehicle trips between San Francisco and the South Bay.

On city freeways, 20 percent of those vehicles are carpooling with two people or more, which includes buses and vans, according to Andrew Heidel, a senior transit planner with the transportation authority. Vehicles with three or more people constitute about 3-5 percent of all drivers.

The rest are all drivers alone in their cars.

So the transportation authority, which is a congestion management agency, is studying near and medium-term solutions, which include the proposed high-occupancy vehicle lane for three riders or more southbound along 101 from Fifth and King streets to San Francisco’s county line, a distance of about 5 miles, and along northbound 280 from 18th to Fifth streets, a distance of about a mile.

Earlier this month, planners presented findings from a previous study indicating that high-occupancy lanes for two or more people, or for three or more people without a pay-for-use option, wouldn’t tackle the traffic issue, said Andrew Heidel, a senior transit planner with the transportation authority.

“They were no better than doing nothing, and in some cases were even worse,” he said.

But a hybrid model with a toll for non-carpools of about 25 cents to $1 per mile would reduce travel times from 4-9 minutes in the carpool lanes, with 3-4 minutes of travel savings in other lanes, according to the transportation authority.

Funding from the express lane would go to public transit serving the communities along the freeway, giving a double boost to efforts to move riders out of their cars and onto regional transit, an environmental goal as well as a congestion aid, Heidel said.

The project is still years from implementation, and is due for an equity analysis, traffic analysis and environmental clearance in mid to late 2019, with construction aimed for after 2020.

Planners resisted calls to widen the freeways, which would “harm communities” near the freeways “more than it would help them,” Heidel told the board.

The transportation authority board, which is made up of members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, also worried that the lanes would create a two-tiered system, of those who can afford to travel quickly and those who cannot.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents southeastern San Francisco, told Heidel “(I’m) cautious about putting a fee on travel through a neighborhood.”

Her fears were echoed by Gloria Berry, a former candidate for Cohen’s board seat who advocates for the Bayview and other southeastern neighborhoods.

“It seems like it’s a project catering to those who don’t live in The City who want to travel through, especially those in the shuttles,” Berry said during public comment. People in the Bayview “don’t have three people to fill a car to visit City Hall, or go to work, or go shopping,” she said.

Chris Lepe, a community planner with transportation advocacy group TransForm, told the board his organization believes express lanes would help everyone. “Traffic is getting worse,” he said. “It’s not good for anybody.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

Correction: Planner Andrew Heidel’s name is spelled Heidel. The Examiner regrets the error.

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