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BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent
When new toll lanes open on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, drivers who use the lanes will pay a variable rate that depends on the amount of traffic and that could be as high as $3 per mile.
That’s according to an application to operate the toll lanes from a group of San Mateo County governments. Construction of the toll lane project in San Mateo County started in March and is expected to be finished in 2022.
The $514 million project will create 22 miles of toll lanes on Highway 101, from the Santa Clara County border to highway 380 in San Bruno.
From the southern end of San Mateo County to Whipple Avenue in Redwood City, existing high occupancy vehicle or HOV lanes in each direction of Highway 101 will be converted to toll lanes. Between Whipple Avenue and Highway 380, a new toll lane will be added in each direction.
The toll lanes, which in government-speak are often referred to as express lanes or managed lanes, are expected to be in operation from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
An unresolved question is whether vehicles with two passengers as well as clean-air vehicles will be charged a lower rate to use the toll lanes than single-occupant vehicles.
FasTrak responders needed
All vehicles using the Highway 101 toll lanes will be required to carry a FasTrak transponder. The transponders might be equipped with a switch that motorists can set to indicate how many people are in the car.
The toll lanes are expected to bring in about $29 million a year, according to the application submitted to the California Transportation Commission. The revenue figure assumes that cars with three or more occupants won’t be charged a toll, vehicles with two occupants will pay half price, and the maximum toll rate will be $3 per mile.
The California Transportation Commission approved the application in August.
Plans for the toll or “express” lanes in San Mateo County come as a similar project is in the works in Santa Clara County.
The $56 million project includes converting existing carpool lanes to toll lanes on Highway 101 from Highway 237 to the San Mateo County line in Palo Alto. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) says it expects the project to be finished in 2021.
The application for the San Mateo County project says that the goal is to have toll systems that are consistent throughout the region.
Smoothing the flow of traffic
The toll lanes are intended to smooth the flow of traffic as Bay area highways become more congested. Transportation officials contend that if they simply added a new lane without restrictions, it would quickly become congested. Car pool lanes, on the other hand, aren’t used enough.
Traffic flow in the toll lanes can be controlled through continuous monitoring of the toll and non-toll lanes. The toll rate can be adjusted as often as every five minutes. Under federal requirements, traffic in the toll lanes must be going 45 mph or faster most of the time.
Paying for a traffic lane twice
Not everyone is sold on the idea of the toll lanes. In an email to the California Transportation Commission in July, one resident said the toll lanes are “ridiculous.”
“You use taxpayer money to build a new lane that you then charge people a toll to use,” the commenter said.
Another commenter predicted the toll lanes would backfire.
“Taking away one lane to use an express lane will not work,” the commenter wrote. “It will not ease the congestion, rather it will increase the congestion on 101/92 and the city streets and will only afford the most affluent to be able to use those toll lanes.”
The group overseeing the San Mateo County toll lanes is called the San Mateo County Express Lanes Joint Powers Authority. It consists of representatives of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority and the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County.
The JPA said that funding for the San Mateo County toll lanes was coming from a variety of sources, including federal money, San Mateo County Transportation Authority Measure A funds, regional toll funds and private funds.