Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 24, 2010

Why we need toll roads

I-680 southbound express lane is just a start

by Jeb Bing

Alameda Country Supervisor Scott Haggerty and State Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-10th) were reasons themselves to add toll lanes to Bay Area freeways.

Both arrived about 30 minutes late for the new I-680 toll/express lane kick off ceremonies on Mission Road near the Sunol Valley Golf Club because they were stuck in traffic.

In fact, the ceremonies that involved nearly 40 state, regional, county and local officials couldn't have offered a better photo-op. As speakers congratulated each other for their work in planning and implementing the new 14-mile-long toll lane, vehicles on the 680 freeway down below were stretched bumper-to-bumper on the Sunol Grade, with a usual weekday morning backup in the southbound lanes that seemed unusually heavy for the 10 a.m. start of the ceremonies.

I-680 is an important north-south route providing the major link from Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley to Santa Clara County, San Jose and the Silicon Valley. Thousands of cars travel the route each morning, also using the freeway's congested northbound lanes each night. Next to I-580, which one day also will offer toll lane-relief to commuters, 680 is one of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area.

The new toll lane opened at 5 a.m. Monday, providing 50-60 mph travel to solo drivers willing to pay the $4 fee to drive from Andrade Road south to Milpitas. But so far, too few drivers are taking advantage of the service, still traveling in traffic all week that seemed even more congested than usual.

Haggerty and Corbett, in their remarks at the kick-off celebration, said they would happily have spent the money if toll lanes were available so that they could have made the ceremony on time. They won't have to wait long. Bijan Sartipi, the District 4 director of the California Department of Transportation, said more toll lanes are planned.

Although a first for Northern California, freeway toll lanes have become common -- and crowded -- in Southern California. Not only do they speed traffic for those willing to pay, they provide needed revenue for a state woefully short of transportation funds to keep pace with a steady increase in traffic. During the current economic recession, congestion has been somewhat reduced, but officials expect it to get even worse as the economy and job availability improves.

The 680 toll lane operates from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays from Andrade to Highway 237 in Milpitas with no toll charges assessed from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays. At other times and days, no tolls are charged to solo drivers.

The toll lane continues to be free for carpools with two or more occupants, motorcycles, buses and those driving hybrid vehicles that have special stickers issued earlier by the state.

Solo drivers who want to use the new toll lane must also have a FasTrak reader, the same one used to pay tolls when crossing Bay Area bridges. A police officer visually monitors the traffic to watch for solo drivers and make sure they have paid their tolls. If drivers of carpools have transponders in their vehicles, they should put them inside their foil envelopes to make sure they are not charged for the trip.

Teresa Becher, division chief of the Golden Gate Division of the California Highway Patrol, cautioned solo motorists to make sure their transponders are positioned correctly on their vehicle's front windshield and that the batteries at full strength.

"The last thing we want to do is delay a motorist or other traffic by pulling someone over with a FasTrak device who is legitimately using the lane, only it didn't work," she said.

The toll lane project is sponsored by the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Construction of the express lane, which is wider than conventional lanes, cost $17.6 million with the electronic toll system costing $11.4 million. The special lane is separated from the free lanes on I-680 by a solid double stripe with three off-lane areas and three entryways in the 14-mile stretch.

"This new express/toll lane in the 680 freeway and those to come will reduce congestion and help people get to their jobs and back home again faster while also reducing vehicle emission," Corbett said.

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