HOT lanes to benefit all travelers

While inching through a typically congested Bay Area highway commute, unaccompanied drivers probably often gaze longingly at the uncrowded diamond lanes and wish they could join the carpoolers, buses and yellow-sticker hybrids zipping past the gridlock.

Motorists open to more lawless fantasies might also daydream of their odds in getting away with sneaking into those tempting high-occupancy lanes — perhaps with the aid of an inflatable dummy passenger.

But soon, motorists driving alone in their vehicles might have the option of buying their way into a rush-hour diamond lane. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission this week is expected to vote on the idea as part of its $228 billion long-range plan, which includes a proposed $6 billion to start building a toll-lane network.

Many people would reflexively attach the elitist “Lexus Lane” label to any plans for allowing well-off or desperate single-occupant-vehicle drivers to pay for access to the car-pool lanes. But a little more thought must lead to the obvious conclusion that optional toll lanes also help the majority of motorists who don’t pay the fee.

After all, any driver staying out of normal free lanes during rush hours — whether by choosing politically correct public transit or controversial high-occupancy toll lanes — is one less driver crowding the no-fee commute routes. How does this shortchange anybody?

In addition, university studies have found that only 20 percent of toll-lane users are daily commuters. The overwhelming 80 percent majority chooses to pay just once a week or so, saving the tolls for important trips. Perhaps they might be late for work or rushing to an airport flight.

Yes, optional tolls for diamond lanes are a proven success at reducing congestion. They have existed for a decade in car-crazy Southern California without serious opposition. The high-occupancy toll lanes became known as HOT lanes in Orange County and San Diego County, where the system of charging variable fees based on congestion was established.

HOT lanes have also spread to other notable high-congestion urban centers. They are already operational in Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis. More are presently under construction in Washington, D.C., and Miami, and they are in the planning stages in Dallas and Houston.

The first Bay Area HOT lanes could open in two years to ease those notorious bottlenecks over the Sunol Grade, through the Tri-Valley interchange and on Santa Clara County’s Silicon Valley loop. If these prove successful, HOT lanes would come to U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo County, starting at San Francisco International Airport.

The 25-year goal is to have Highway 101 HOT lanes extending north to the Interstate 280 interchange in San Francisco. These would mostly be newly built lanes, although the possibility remains open for some existing carpool lanes to become HOT lanes. User tolls would help finance more lane construction as well as express buses.

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