Our plan for how to tame traffic on Highway 101 gains interest in San Mateo County

Clarrissa Cabansagan Headshot

Gridlock traffic in San Mateo County is a problem that won’t just solve itself. But hope for an escape from congestion is on the horizon.

At their February 13 monthly meeting, several board members of the San Mateo City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) called for the agency to study TransForm’s proposal for Optimized High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes as a solution to heavy traffic and limited transportation choices for commuting along Highway 101.

C/CAG is already moving forward with plans to create a new carpool lane in each direction of Highway 101, from Whipple to I-380, using existing auxiliary lanes and widening the highway in a few places. This “Hybrid HOV” approach, as C/CAG calls it, is better than building an entirely new lane, but it still widens the highway at a projected $150–180 million cost, causing significant environmental damage. TransForm wants the county to go a step further and create a HOT lane without any highway widening and use the HOT revenues to support transportation choices and low-income commuters. We call this the “Optimized HOT” approach, and it has drawn support from local stakeholders such as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Friends of Caltrain.

There is strong support for HOT as a solution that provides equity and choice as well as traffic-free lanes ...

At the February 13 meeting, three C/CAG board members strongly endorsed TransForm’s push to study the Optimized HOT approach. Redwood City Councilmember Barbara Pierce, Menlo Park City Councilmember Kirsten Keith, and Burlingame Vice-Mayor Terry Nagel all spoke out to say that the Optimized HOT approach not only offers the potential to alleviate congestion on 101, it provides new choices to a broader range of people, all within our existing infrastructure.

Other C/CAG board members asked questions on issues such as the equity of each approach and whether C/CAG’s models could accurately estimate how people will respond to these changes. Proponents of studying Optimized HOT chimed in with examples of how HOT can be done equitably and pointed out that if the county builds an HOV with taxpayer funds, the main beneficiaries would be carpoolers and passengers on private corporate shuttles. By contrast, an Optimized HOT lane could produce enough revenue to bring much needed funding to Caltrain and SamTrans, and could support new express buses for the public.

Supportive board members said that C/CAG should at least study the idea, to find out if its promise – to move more people with less traffic and get it done sooner – will work.

TransForm acknowledges that this is one step of many that will be needed to bring the Optimized HOT approach to reality, as laid out in our Innovation Required report.

... And momentum is gathering at the regional and state levels.

TransForm and our allies have also had several encouraging conversations with high-level officials at the regional and state level.

Discussions with Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) commissioners and staff have yielded interest, including a recognition that the Optimized HOT proposal is in line with policy adopted when MTC passed Plan Bay Area last July. If and when C/CAG decides it wants to study the Optimized HOT approach, TransForm will support asking MTC to pay for the study as part of the region’s overall express lane efforts.

Several high-level Caltrans officials have agreed on the importance of making the best use of existing highway infrastructure. Some officials also worried about whether the Optimized HOT approach will cause unacceptable levels of congestion. But everyone we've talked with at Caltrans agrees that the concept should be studied.

This is all good news, and C/CAG’s effort to understand the potential for Optimized HOT in San Mateo County comes on the heels of recent state documents that follow a similar sentiment:

  • In early February, a third-party assessment of Caltrans called for radical reform of the agency. The report exposed the stark disconnect between our state’s commitment to dramatically reduce how much Californians drive and Caltrans’ inconsistent practice that favors expanding roads that induce more solo driving.
  • California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) has also provided guidance for agencies to squeeze more capacity out of our existing transportation infrastructure. In its recently updated AB 32 Scoping Plan, ARB specified improving the efficiency and throughput of our existing transportation systems as a key component of our state’s climate strategy.

There are many more steps to go, but we are continuing to build momentum and interest for Optimized HOT along the Peninsula.

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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.