What the Bay Area should rethink regarding its express lane network: what's hot, what's not?

MTC’s newly released Plan Bay Area includes a proposal to significantly expand the Bay Area’s Express Lane Network. This plan will collectively charge drivers billions of dollars in tolls, and TransForm wants to make sure the tolling is done fairly and the money used wisely.

Express lanes, also known as high-occupancy toll lanes or “HOT lanes,” could be a powerful tool for improving regional transportation, but only if we leverage them to create more transportation options and maximize congestion reduction for the long term.

If we prioritize equity, choice, and innovation, we can get the most out of HOT lanes: move more people for less money, make connections sooner, and invest in public transit and other long-term solutions.

MTC’s current proposal is, if you will, not so hot – it fails to harness the potential of HOT lanes, will cost us more in the long run, and will increase greenhouse gas pollution. The Bay Area can do better.

That’s why TransForm is advocating for a better plan with a commitment to innovation, choice, and equity. Here’s how we think the plan should be improved so that it’s more “hot” than “not.”

Equity

Not! MTC’s plan doesn’t contain any provision to address equity, instead assuming that people of all incomes will use the express lanes equally. But just because people at many different income levels may own a Lexus, that doesn’t mean Lexuses are equally distributed. In Seattle, over 50% of express lane users have a household income of over $100,000/year, while only 15% of users have a household income of $50,000/year.

Hot! MTC should implement mitigations to ensure low-income families receive an equitable share of the benefits and do not bear a disproportionate burden of the HOT network. Mitigations may include low-income discounts, credits, exemptions, and rebates on the network, as well as transit investments. Los Angeles has an equity plan that MTC should consider.

Choice

Not! MTC’s plan continues the cycle of “build more lanes, attract more drivers” by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices. Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily traveled highways.

Hot! MTC should ensure that with the opening of every new HOT lane, there will be a simultaneous improvement in transportation choices – transit and vanpools – along the same corridor, over and above existing transit service and paid for by a combination of net revenues from the HOT system and new revenues from other sources. MTC should develop a transportation choices expansion plan as part of the express lane network implementation.

Innovation

Not! MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits express lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes. This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st-century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.

Hot! MTC should study the option of optimizing existing lanes, and ask Caltrans to reconsider its practice of not allowing conversion of mixed-flow lanes to high-occupancy lanes. That way, the network could include relief for heavily congested corridors such as Highway 101 in San Mateo County, I-880 in Alameda County, and Highway 24 linking Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

The proposed Express Lane Network isn’t all bad. One good thing is that almost all the first express lanes would be conversions from existing HOV lanes. These have revenues that are higher than projected expenses. But the basic problem remains: MTC plans to use all of those early net revenues to pay for building new highway lanes.

If we prioritize equity, choice, and innovation, we can make sure that HOT lanes truly benefit the whole region. Implementing HOT lanes means we can move more people for less money, complete the network sooner, and invest in public transit and other solutions so that all Bay Area residents can get where they need to go quickly and safely. But with MTC’s current proposal, they will NOT.

What You Can Do
MTC’s draft Plan Bay Area studied a few different variations on the Express Lane Network. TransForm is reviewing these results, and we’ll post an analysis here on our blog soon. We encourage you to speak out for choice, equity, and innovation in the Express Lane Network at MTC’s upcoming public meetings.
 

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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.