Proposed express lanes won’t fix traffic on 101… what will?

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express lane trafficThe growing and interrelated transportation, affordability, and climate crises call for our communities and public agencies to set a high bar for new transportation investments.

The Highway 101 Managed Lanes Project planned by Caltrans, San Mateo City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA), offered an opportunity to think big and help address these pressing challenges. Among the project’s stated goals are increasing person throughput, encouraging carpooling and transit use, and reducing congestion.1

What are managed lanes?

Managed lanes, as used here, are also known as express lanes. They are free to enter for carpools and transit vehicles, and if there is capacity in the lanes, solo drivers can pay a fee to get in. Fees are dynamic, fluctuating based on the number of vehicles in the lanes in order to ensure vehicles in the lanes flow freely. Net revenues collected from the express lanes can be used to fund transportation improvements in the corridor and/or to repay the construction costs of the lanes.

The boundaries of this phase of the Highway 101 Managed Lanes Project are between Palo Alto and San Bruno. It is the first segment of what is expected to be a continuous managed lane in each direction between San Francisco and Gilroy.

The recently released Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) initially considered a range of alternatives for the highway, including a scenario that didn’t widen the highway but instead converted a general purpose lane in each direction to an express lane, (as TransForm had initially proposed.) It was deemed that the conversion scenario would not meet the project goals, especially as congestion was shown to increase significantly in the general purpose lanes. We’ll write a follow-up blog post to explain why we believe the conversion did not perform well in the model that was used.

Instead, what is moving forward in the final document is known as the “build alternative.” This preferred alternative is planned to be completed as early as 2024 at a cost of over $500 million and proposes to do two things:

  1. Convert seven miles of the existing HOV lane to a managed lane from San Antonio Road (near the border of Palo Alto and Mountain View) to Whipple Avenue in Redwood City. This highway segment would remain at four lanes in each direction.
  2. Add 13 miles of managed lanes north of Whipple Road in Redwood City to I-380 in San Bruno. This would be done primarily by connecting the auxiliary lanes (exit-only lanes) to each other, essentially by continuing them under/through each interchange. These auxiliary lanes would only replaced in some segments.

The managed lanes would become HOT-3 (High-Occupancy Toll), meaning carpoolers would need at least 3 people per vehicle instead of the current HOV-2 (High-Occupancy Vehicle). TransForm supports this higher occupancy in order for the lanes to be effective.

Project proponents point out the benefits of the Highway 101 Managed Lanes Project, including a 10-20% increase in person throughput along the corridor and double digit increases in carpooling. They also applaud the fact that some negative impacts that are typically associated with highway widening, such as property acquisition and eminent domain, are avoided by the proposed project thanks to careful design by project planners.2 There is also substantial reduction in delay in the segments where the highway goes from four lanes to five, e.g., northbound after you pass Whipple and Southbound after I-380.

Shortcomings and Impacts

While the Build Alternative’s benefits are highlighted in the DEIR, there are some major shortcomings as well. The project sponsors have long understood that this can’t be the only transportation investment in the corridor — that’s why, for example, they are supporting an express bus study on 101. These shortcomings show how important further investment will be. See the impacts of the various alternatives over time in this series of charts.

  1. Delays and total vehicle travel skyrockets with or without the project. Given expected employment and population growth, we need a focus on reducing demand and a higher bar for increasing person throughput. Overall daily travel time on the corridor is currently 59,000 hours, yet with the Build Alternative travel times would jump to two and a half times existing conditions to 149,700 hours by 2040. With no project it would be higher still at 158,376 daily hours on Highway 101. Some local streets and I-280 would see higher delays with No Build than with the Build Alternative.
  2. The Build Alternative creates some terrible back-ups. In segments of the highway where the lanes transition from five lanes to four, travellers will suffer significant delays and, in several situations, be worse off under the Build Alternative. The most alarming projection is southbound at 5:30 pm in the five miles between SR 92 and Whipple Ave. Travel times in general purpose lanes would increase from five minutes in existing (2013) conditions to 16 minutes in 2040 under the No-Build Alternative, but if the Build Alternative is implemented it will take an astonishing 89 minutesnearly 18 times the existing conditions, or five and a half times the No-Build Alternative. See some of the worst segments in this series of charts. As would be expected, the build project’s added managed lane does create a tremendous time savings for transit and carpoolers, compared to no project.
  3. The project increases the number of cars on the highway and overall vehicle travel. Compared to No Build, the Build Alternative would see a growth of 1.2% in Vehicles Miles Travelled (VMT) expected by 2020 and 1% by 2040. But much more importantly, the DEIR shows that there will be significant growth in VMT by 2040 compared to current conditions — either 27 or 28%, with No Build or the Build Alternative. The DEIR does predict a very slight drop in climate emissions by 2040 due to cleaner cars; but by then California is supposed to be well on our way to achieving an 80% reduction in GHGs. In short, no scenario in the DEIR gets us to our climate goals.

What will it take to make this work?

With or without the Build Alternative, traffic along the corridor is projected to get much worse. The only thing that will improve the situation is a successful all-hands-on-deck effort to move far more people in fewer vehicles.

TransForm recommends the following steps to ensure that managed lanes actually deliver benefits for mobility, for our climate, and for low-income commuters struggling with access and high costs.

  1. Develop a 101 Mobility Action Plan (MAP) and provide significant funding to implement its recommendations. The MAP would develop a comprehensive set of strategies to maximize person throughput via mode shift away from solo driving on the managed lane. The focus would be on both short-term and medium-term strategies, including the provision of excellent public transit and vanpool options, carpool programs, new mobility options, as well as publicly funded and employer-driven incentives to greatly increase the use of these modes. Fortunately, Caltrans staff and other agencies also see the need for strategies to support mode shift away from solo driving. (If you agree, sign this petition!)
  2. Develop and fund an Equity Strategy to maximize the benefits of the managed lanes for people with lower incomes. This is especially important given the greater housing and transportation cost-burden of low-income households (especially in San Mateo County), and their greater mobility challenges. The following are a few examples of what an Equity Strategy could include:
    • Expansion of affordable new transportation choices for low-income communities and commuters.
    • Funding for discounted and free transit passes for people with lower incomes.
    • Reduction in the barriers to access the lanes, for example with options for cash payment, free transponders, and reduced tolls for low-income commuters.

The 101 MAP and Equity Strategy must be funding priorities, including in the expenditure plan for the San Mateo County Sales Tax.

What can you do?

Sign our petition calling for a Mobility Action Plan for the 101 corridor. We need to focus on moving more people on Highway 101, not just moving more cars. A MAP would identify ways to do that.

You can support these recommendations for a FAST 101 (Fast, Affordable, Sustainable Transportation for Highway 101) by submitting a DEIR comment to Caltrans, C/CAG and SMCTA before January 19th as part of the DEIR comment period highlighting your concerns about the project’s inadequacy in meeting transportation, equity, and climate goals.

  • By January 19, Send comments via U.S. postal mail to: Department of Transportation, District 4 Attn: Yolanda Rivas P.O. Box 23660 MS 8B, Oakland, CA 94623-0660, 
  • Or via email to: SM101DEIR_EA_comments@dot.ca.gov

Another critical step must take place in San Francisco. Very soon, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority will be considering funding for an EIR that would analyze conversion of an existing general purpose lane to a managed lane on 101 north of I-380, and on 280 to downtown SF. This would connect with the segment currently being planned by C/CAG and Caltrans in San Mateo County. A continuous managed lane is absolutely essential to speed transit, vanpools and carpools between downtown San Francisco and the Peninsula, as can be seen from the huge bottleneck delays that would take place heading into SF under the scenarios in the 101 DEIR.

Some San Francisco advocates are instead calling for a focus on charging for all the lanes. TransForm believes that managed lanes are needed for the entire length of Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, whether or not we ever get a congestion charge in San Francisco. Without a managed lane, transit, vanpools, and carpools will remain stuck in traffic, and won’t provide the convenience necessary to lure drivers to these modes.

For a description of why the SFCTA Board should support funding for the study and why we need a Mobility Action Plan, please see our proposal for a FAST Bay Area.


1. The first two goals are also key objectives echoed in Caltrans’ Strategic Management Plan for the agency’s statewide approach to transportation planning. That plan calls for a two-fold increase in transit use and walking, and a three-fold use in bicycling by 2020. It also calls for 15% reduction of statewide per capita Vehicle Miles of Travel (VMT) by 2020 relative to 2010 levels.

2. To keep the widening primarily in the existing highway footprint, there are many design exceptions in certain segments, including thinner lanes. Loss of a shoulder in some areas may worsen episodic congestion from accidents that can’t pull over. In other segments they would not replace auxiliary lanes (lanes connecting highway off-ramps to the next on-ramp). In those areas there is only a slight increase in capacity.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.