The new cost of driving – express lanes come to the Bay Area

Jun 7, 2016

In February, new express lanes opened on Interstate 580 near Pleasanton. These express lanes are just like carpool lanes – in most ways. They’re free for buses, motorcycles, and cars with more than one rider. But in an express lane a single driver can get in too, for a price.

The express lanes on 580 are some of the first in Bay Area, but many more are coming. The plan is to deploy 550 miles of them around the Bay over the next 20 years.

To find out how commuters feel about the new express lanes, I take BART to the end of the line.

Interstate 580
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

Split opinions

I’m at the Dublin Pleasanton station on a Monday afternoon. Exiting the train with me are people coming home from work. They’re heading down to the BART parking lot to drive the rest of the way home. And a lot of them are now faced with a choice that a few months ago they didn't have to make: Do they want to pay a toll to drive faster?

In the parking lot, Debbie Hernandez stops to talk to me. She looks exhausted, and in a hurry. She commutes five hours a day between San Francisco and Modesto.

 

“This is the worst commute ever,” she says. And the express lanes, she says, make it worse. “I guess unless you're paying,” she says, laughing.

The express lanes end before the Altamont pass. As drivers merge out of it, she says there’s a big slowdown.

“We’re sitting here waiting, and these people are paying,” says Hernandez. “And when we get up there, they’re bottlenecking it and we can’t get in.”

But it’s not just the way they’re executed. She’s outraged by the whole idea of express lanes.

“Why do we have to pay?” asks Hernandez. “Commuters have to pay for everything! We're the ones who have to pay for parking. We're the only ones that have to pay for the FasTrak, we pay the most going over the bridge. Why can't we have a break?”

Around this time, I notice a silver-haired man in a blue button-up shirt, who’s stopped nearby. He’s kind of watching us out of the corner of his eye. I give him a wave, and he comes over.

His name is Philip Dolle, and he loves the express lanes. He works for Salesforce in the City. The express lane takes at least 40 minutes off his drive home from BART.

“To me it's worth it to get home to my family a little earlier, to have a sit-down dinner,” says Dolle. For him, the three or four dollars it costs on average is “not a big deal.” He says it “seems like a bridge toll.”

Hernandez heads off, and Dolle agrees to let me ride shotgun so I can see how the express lanes work.

Nice.

A new kind of FasTrak pass

In the car, Philip Dolle shows me his fancy new FasTrak pass. It has a little black switch that lets him say how many people are in the car.

“Right now I have two people in here so I can set it to the ‘two,’” Dolle says. “You're saving me some money today!”

Normal carpool lanes are often under-used. An express lane still encourages carpooling, but it’s like a pressure valve for the rest of traffic. That’s why in most cases, adding an express lane improves commute times for everyone, not just drivers in the fast lane.

We get on the highway and ahead there’s a sign with a light-up digital display.

“Right now it shows just to go to the next exit is $1.25,” Dolle explains. “Obviously since traffic is moving pretty good they don't have it is expensive as it could potentially be.”

The express lane is always supposed to move quickly, so the toll goes up and down depending on traffic. The more people use the lane, the higher the price gets.

We merge left into the express lane, and above us, a black sensor reads his pass. Compared to the carpool lanes we’re used to, it’s easier to catch cheaters in an express lane. Somewhere off to our right, Debbie Hernandez is stuck in traffic, and we sail right past.

Making express lanes equitable

Express lanes can feel unfair: like there’s a fast lane for rich people, and traffic for everyone else. I ask Stuart Cohen, the co-founder of the policy group TransForm, if he thinks express lanes feel classist. He's been an advocate for tolls as one solution to congestion. 

"Yeah, you know, it absolutely brings up a classist feel to it," says Cohen. And he concedes that “there are significant equity questions that we have to grapple with." But, he says, "the current system is failing everybody.”

 

Cohen believes that toll lanes, if done right, can actually make the transportation system more equitable than it is today. It all depends on how you spend the revenue. Part of it has to cover the cost of opening and running the lane. But the rest can be spent improving public transit.

For Cohen, the priorities would be clear. “Make sure that that transit service is targeted to the disadvantage communities that need it the most. Make sure that transit service is affordable.”

 

He says new express lanes could be a double-win for buses in particular. The toll revenue can make bus service better, and the new lanes can move the buses faster.

Networks of fast-tracked buses could be “like whole new rail lines,” he says. If buses could move consistently at 60 or 65 miles per hour, “you start to emulate BART speeds at that point.”

A bottleneck

 

Back on 580, we’re coming up on our exit.

 

And as we get out of the express lane, we see that bottleneck that Debbie Hernandez was complaining about. It’s not great for Philip Dolle either.

 

“This is probably the most dangerous part of this,” he says, looking over his shoulder to move into the right lane.

 

We make it off the highway. Today’s ride in the express lane – well, if I hadn’t been in the car – would have cost less than four dollars.

 

“You know I used to come home exhausted, now I don't,” says Dolle. “So it's well worth it.”

 

Dolle drops me off at an Arco station in Livermore. I thank him for the ride, and he takes off.

I find a bus that will take me back to BART. It uses the express lane. No traffic.

550 miles of express lanes are planned for the Bay Area by 2035. See where they’re being considered at bayareaexpresslanes.org. Learn more about how to use the express lanes on 580 here.