Can toll lanes on Highway 101 help pay for Caltrain?

This week, regional and statewide transportation and land use advocacy group TransForm issued a new report exploring the possibility of repurposing existing lanes on Highway 101 to create “Optimized HOT lanes” to reduce traffic congestion and fund Caltrain, SamTrans, vanpools, and other alternatives to driving alone on the freeway.

What is an Optimized HOT Lane?  A High Occupancy Vehicle Lane (HOV) is a “carpool” lane that can be used only by vehicles with more than one passenger.  A High Occupancy Toll lane is a “fast lane” that is free for carpools, and that single drivers could pay a toll to use.  And an Optimized HOT lane enables tolls to be dynamically adjusted to ensure free-flowing traffic in the lane.

Because a new lane does not need to be constructed, the project costs much less, only about $18 million, compared to over $150 Million for the carpool lane currently being studied. The savings as well as the toll revenues could be spent on alternatives to driving alone on 101, including Caltrain, SamTrans, carpool and vanpool programs, and transportation demand management incentives to use alternatives.  This would enable the corridor to carry more passengers, with less traffic, for less money.

Optimized HOT Lanes
 TransForm Infographic 1


Modeling by transportation consultancy Kott Planning Associates indicates that this proposal could carry fewer vehicles per lane than today (less traffic) while moving 50% more people on the corridor (and 8-12% more people than the current HOV lane proposals).  While the TransForm study does not analyze greenhouse gas emissions, the substantial mode shift would also improve emissions and help achieve the region’s climate goals.

TransForm recommends that more detailed study would need to be done to validate these calculations, and to assess ways to reduce the burden on low-income travelers.

Optimized HOT lanes: Less traffic, more people


How much revenue could this raise for Caltrain, SamTrans, and transportation demand management programs?  According to TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson, this is a challenge to assess and would need further study. However, according to estimates based on the MTC’s regional studies of HOT lanes, the program could raise $100 Million or more per year, not counting operations costs.  Revenues in this ballpark would be a major help to Caltrain; $5 million per year would fill San Mateo’s chronic gap in Caltrain’s operating funding, putting a halt for a while to Caltrain’s operating funding instability.

The “Optimized HOT Lane” proposal faces several hurdles to adoption.

The first challenge is political perception.  While the technical analysis commissioned by TransForm indicates that this approach is likely to reduce traffic congestion,  the car-centric conventional wisdom is that converting an existing general-purpose lane would increase traffic.  San Mateo County leaders at the City/County Association of Governments and the Transportation Authority – the bodies that set policy and fund congestion management investments – would need to take a bold step to study a promising but counter-intuitive approach to addressing the county’s traffic and pollution problems.

A procedural challenge to getting started now is that San Mateo County is already kicking off a study for $150 million proposal to widen 101, creating a “13-mile hybrid of new HOV lane segments and auxiliary lane segments to allow for conversion of left-hand mixed-flow lane to HOV.”  The scope of the current studies would need to be expanded to incorporate the concepts of reusing lanes and optimizing the toll price based on congestion.

Update:  The study is in the scoping phase, and there will be public meetings regarding the scope in January.  The scope of the study could be widened to include option of lane conversion with Optimized HOT.  The question to answer with the analysis is whether the County can get all of the congestion benefits and more carbon benefits for 15% of the cost.

Another challenge is that state law currently requires highway expansion to create HOT lanes.  AB798 prohibits the conversion of general purpose lanes to an HOT lane, though it allows an existing HOV lane to be converted to an HOT lane. So, a new lane needs to be built before it can be turned into an HOT lane.  According to Jeff Hobson, TransForm will be working with legislators to propose bills to address this gap.  Federal law also doesn’t support repurposing lanes, but that applies only if the project needs federal money.  The Optimized HOT Lane proposal is sufficiently inexpensive compared to the highway widening proposal that it could be done without federal funds.

Yet another hurdle is that this segment of 101 north of Whipple is not included in MTC’s regional express lane master plan, which includes 550 miles of express lanes around the Bay Area.  If the approach was vetted and encouraged in San Mateo County, the MTC would need to approve it as well, including “Optimized HOT Lane” approach.

Another important issue is equity. Whether HOT lanes are created from new lanes or existing ones, they pose more of a cost burden for lower income travellers.  The current County study does not consider equity issues. TransForm recommends studying ways to mitigate the equity issues.

If these hurdles can be overcome, San Mateo County could get better results from the transportation system by treating 101 as part of a north-south multimodal transportation corridor, rather than as a tool for moving cars.

What do you think? Do you want to see San Mateo County study the potential to reduce traffic and fund transit by converting lanes on 101?