Californians -- especially those in the East Bay -- will soon be joining midwestern and eastern states when it comes to high-price toll road fees.
A $55 million project to create express lanes expected to ease congestion along I-580 through Pleasanton and Livermore that will be opened after this Presidents' Day weekend should relieve traffic on one of the country's highest-congested freeways, but at a cost.
The new lanes, which will be free to vehicles with two or more occupants and during overnight hours, will cost solo drivers who want to use the lanes up to $9 for the full length in the eastbound direction and up to $13 in the westbound direction.
That's still less than the $15 you're charged for using bridges and tunnels in New York City, or the $4.65 toll for every 157 miles you drive on the Indiana toll road. Even the Golden Gate Bridge toll is now $7.25 ($6.25 with a FasTrak transponder).
All drivers who want to take advantage of carpool and other exemptions will have to purchase new FasTrak Flex toll reading devices, which are small battery-powered devices with adjustable settings based on whether a vehicle has one, two or three-plus occupants. The current transponders will continue to work but drivers will be charged at the solo rate even if they have more than one occupant.
Arthur Dao, executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Commission, says the new freeway lanes represent "a decade of worth of planning, engineering, development and construction to improve mobility in this congested corridor." The new toll lanes consist of a 14-mile westbound lane that begins at Greenville Road in Livermore and ends at San Ramon Road near the I-680 connector.
There are two eastbound lanes, which span 11 miles between Hacienda Boulevard in Pleasanton and Greenville Road in Livermore.
In both directions, there are areas where access into and out of the express lanes are limited, represented by double white lines. The maximum rates apply to those using the full distance of the lanes. The lanes are otherwise divided into zones that drivers pay for based on where they entered and exited.
The minimum cost is 30 cents per zone, with adjustments to that cost being made by an algorithmic pricing system that pulls data about current traffic levels from sensors. Based on the current price displayed on signage when a driver enters the express lane, the driver is charged through an electronic detection system.
"It's the next generation of technology," said Tess Lengyel, deputy director of planning and policy for the transportation commission. "There are no toll booths. This is how the tolls are generated."
Rest assured, she added, that the money stays where it is paid. She insisted that toll revenues paid by motorists using the new I-580 lanes will stay here to pay for ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Any excess funds will be used to support transit projects along the corridor.
What about out-of-town motorists here for a visit? Or those not yet savvy about the new transponders or tolls?
Lengyel said the commission recognizes that this is a new system and that drivers will have to adjust to this over time. It's through an education process such as these new reports that she hopes that the public and drivers will learn how it works.