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!

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10
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.

2 Responses

  1. How come you do not pay the $1.25, and do not forget you are also saving at least $10.00 a day and maybe you have been saving for years while the drivers have been paying all along. I am a rider and I have always offered a dollar or two to the driver.

    • Hi ‘hopping’ – You asked why I don’t pay $1.25. I have not seen anywhere a requirement that to be a casual carpool rider you must pay $1.25. The contribution to the toll is voluntary and the amount is up to each individual. If you’ve been reading some of my blogs and the comments, you will see that there are some drivers who are very specific about the amount, and some who don’t care. For one thing, it’s easier to have a dollar bill handy – I use my quarters for the MUNI I connect to once I get into the city, so I try not to use them for other expenditures. I also need quarters for my return in the evening and I take BART or the Ferry for my return, so am well aware of the expense. But the larger issue is that this is a shared experience. True, the drivers are paying for gas and perhaps parking, car insurance and car payments, and that remains a constant, toll or no toll. I pay some of that also, just to get to and from the carpool lot. If you want the convenience (or perhaps necessity) of driving a car to the city and you want to avoid paying a high toll, you pick up riders. I would hope that sparing the environment is some motivation as well. With the current toll fee, drivers save $2.50 each day on the Carquinez Bridge and $3.50 a day on the Bay Bridge, just by having 2 more bodies in their car.

      I appreciate the savings as I’m sure the drivers do. To be fair, and to split the $2.50 toll evenly between the driver and 2 passengers, each would pay about 83 cents. If 2 riders pay $1.25 each, the driver pays nothing at all, which is what they were paying before there was a toll. By insisting that riders pay $1.25 each, the full toll responsibility rests on the passengers, which is hardly fair.

      That’s probably more than you wanted to know about why I pay a dollar, but there it is. I’m sure your generosity is appreciated and I applaud you for it, but if you ride in my car on the days I drive, you will not have to pay a single penny.

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