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  • Waiting for a ride

Friday June 24 A Carpool Lane by any other name is an Express Lane?

It’s a repeat of the last couple of mornings – cold and overcast. Another long line-up of riders. My ride is the front seat of an Accura SUV. The driver is immersed in soccer on KNBR Radio and gulping coffee. An icy air conditioner is on, with the vent blasting away at me. I quickly close the vent, but the car is still chilly enough that I’m uncomfortable. Heavier traffic than I usually see on Fridays, but the carpool lane is doing 60 mph. Or should I now say the “Express Lane?”

There’s a plan afoot to transform the carpool lanes in the Bay Area (did you realize there are 400 miles of carpool lanes here?) into optional single driver express lanes. Single drivers will be permitted in these lanes if they pay a toll (anywhere between $1 and $5). The amount will be determined by the amount of traffic and speed as measured by sensors installed in the pavement. Car poolers, buses,and hybrids with permits will still be able to use these lanes free of charge. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll, so that single drivers would be discouraged from entering the lane when the commute is extremely heavy. Transportation officials want to keep these lanes moving at 45 mph.

The toll will be calculated via FasTrak through overhead antennas mounted along the way. CHP will allegedly be able to catch ‘cheaters’ by visual and electronic monitoring. I would hope their efforts will be more effective with this express lane situation than what I’ve seen in the existing carpool lane. Single drivers regularly duck into the carpool lane when traffic gets heavy on the 80 freeway. I could count on just one hand the number of times I’ve seen a cheater pulled over in the 5 years I’ve been carpooling. And single drivers really stand out from the cars with 3 or 4 passengers. In a single driver/express situation, visual identification of a cheater would be challenging, to say the least.

The first stretch of carpool lanes to permit single “express-toll” drivers will be opened September 20 on the Sunol Grade. That’s 14 miles of Highway #680, between Fremont and Milpitas. The express lane will be open as a toll lane from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Regional transportation planners hope to have this system in place throughout the freeway system. The next two sections to be opened for express drivers next year are an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 580, through Livermore, and in San Jose, the connecting freeway between Interstate 880 and Highway 237.

According to SF Chronicle reporter Michal Cabanatuan’s article on June 23 (“Solo in Fast Lane – For a Price”) the “Metropolitan Transportation Commision’s plan for the next 25 years calls for spending $3 -7 billion to create a regional toll-lane network that would convert the existing 400 miles of carpool lanes into toll lanes available to solo drivers.”

Ingenius, isn’t it. Yet another scheme to squeeze more money out of commuters so that there can be more cars on the road. You may have guessed how Commuter Gal feels about this. It feels like another way to disregard the carpooling system, which doesn’t pay as much as a non-carpooling system. I’m guessing that a number of people who somewhat reluctantly pick up riders so they can use the carpool lane, will instead become express lane single drivers. Admittedly, not everyone will want to spend the extra dollars on top of the increased bridge toll for their commute, but I think enough people will so that it will create fewer available drivers and more carpool lane congestion.

And what was the estimated cost for doing this again – oh yes $3 – $7 BILLION?? I bet there’s another way to use that kind of money that would decrease auto traffic and increase carpooling, bus, train, and van transportation, dontcha think?

Enough. A warm weekend looms. Enjoy your time off the freeway.

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