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  • Waiting for a ride

This Week. The express lanes are coming.

WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 8. A cool and overcast day but a spectacular sunrise is breaking through the layers of fog. I’m in a 4-door Ford pickup truck. Both guys in the front seat are chuckling as I get in and we all say good morning. The driver is a guy in his late 50s and seems unaware of the dollar I lay on the armrest next to him. Traffic starts to crawl along after only a few miles. ’46 MINUTES TO DOWNTOWN SF’ the electronic sign says. Summer lite is really over.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 9. Another overcast and somewhat gloomy morning as I leave the house, but no wind at all. It’s very still and quiet. Not so out here on the daily commute. This morning’s freeway sign says ’39 MINUTES TO DOWNTOWN SF’ and traffic is moving but plentiful. I’m in the front seat of a large Chrysler minivan, a Town & Country. A rotund fellow is driving and when I pull out my dollar he grins and taps the pull-down eyeglass pouch above the windshield. “That’s great”, I say. “A little toll pouch!” He looks pleased with his solution. He’s sporting chiseled long sideburns that extend down to his chin. A blue and white tassle, like the ones from graduation caps, hangs from his mirror along with a small wooden cross on a chain of wooden beads.

Traffic starts piling up as we get closer to Berkeley and the Bay Bridge, and single drivers from other lanes start pulling into the carpool lane, slowing us down. As I watch them, I think about how our commute would (will) be once it also functions as an express lane. And it will happen.

On Monday, September 20 the Bay Area’s first express lane will open on Interstate 680. This will be a 14-mile length of the 680 heading south from #84 to #237, and it is also a carpool lane. The ‘express’ feature means that single drivers can use the carpool lane, for a fee. The toll will vary depending on the amount of traffic on the freeway at the time. Stripes painted on the road will indicate entry and exit points and the single drivers will be electronically monitored and charged through their FasTrak transponder. You may wonder, as I did, how the carpool drivers, who also have transponders, will avoid being charged. They will need to obtain a mylar bag to hide their transponder so that it is not charged. There will not be vid cams as a backup, as there is on the bridges, so disputing charges will be difficult, if not impossible. Wonderful.

The next express lane is scheduled to open next year on eastbound Interstate 580, between Pleasanton and Livermore, followed by another opening on the westbound 580 in 2012. The plan is to eventually have all 800 miles of carpool lanes converted into express lanes.

Sounds like an ingenious plan for making more money, but unfortunately another way to weaken the carpool system. Dave Hyams, a spokesman for the express lane project said the project will reduce congestion. “The carpool lanes are not full, so there’s plenty of room”, he said. Well, sure, Dave, the carpool lanes are not full. They’re not supposed to be. If they were, who would care about driving in the carpool lane?

How about decreasing congestion by providing more incentive to carpool? Like not charging bridge toll to carpoolers? Eh? ‘Course there’s no money in that!

It’s a beautiful morning in Vallejo and I’m in the front seat of a bright red Scion. I like these funny looking box-like cars. They are amazingly comfortable to ride in. Comfy seats with lots of leg room. There are 2 fellows in the back seat – KUDOS to our driver! – and they look comfortable, too. Mid-aged lady in Friday jeans is driving wearing a cluster of beaded bracelets on her wrist. A GPS is tracking our trip, and of course KCBS Radio is all about the horrible explosion and fire in San Bruno.

Traffic is much lighter today. I made a huge effort to get up and get moving so I can get some gym time in before work and it looks like I might make it. A wonderful hanging beaded wire ornament dangles from the mirror.

Tide is way out this morning and the shoreline a shiny, muddy swamp. A flock of geese are coming in for a landing in the grassy recreation area near Berkeley. Fall migrations are underway. Another huge flock of at least 50 snow-white birds, maybe small gulls, are out in the water bobbing in a curved line that simultaneously lays in a beam of sunlight. Wow.

The toll plaza is a mess, frozen in time and space. We fly by. The weekend starts in 8 hours. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 7 – We’re Back!

Yes, we’re back, us casual carpoolers, along with the fog. Vacation’s over, and a lovely one it was. A week away on the northern California coast was much too short. Deer, tidepools, long walks on trails along the ocean and through the sunny sweet-grass-smelling meadows, and always, the glorious Pacific ocean. Ahh.

I’m in a Honda Insight (a hybrid) this morning with a relaxed, pleasant driver in a comfortably warm car. He’s an Asian-American guy in his early 40s dressed casually in khakis and a windbreaker. KDFC is on the radio with good classical music. I contribute $1 to the toll; the rider in the back seat pays $1.25. The driver thanks us both. A brief blast of sunshine splashes over us as we cross the Carquinez Bridge and then we return to the fog and the sluggish back-from-vacation traffic. The electronic traffic alert sign tells us 39 minutes to San Francisco and that’s exactly how long it takes this morning. We pass the sign at 7:05 and arrive at the San Francisco drop off corner at 7:44.

Plowing through my messages and newspapers, it looks like there’s been a lot going on for commuters during these last few weeks of summer. Big news is that the first of the new express lanes has opened on the 680 freeway, (remember these are actually carpool lanes that are now being made available to single drivers who want to pay extra); new numbers for the number of carpoolers and toll revenue should be coming in soon. Plus there are freeway lanes widening and some improvements in public transportation options. I’m just back and catching up and will be sharing my views on all this as the week unfolds.

Take heart fellow travelers, it’s a short week. Tomorrow’s already Wednesday.