Editorial: Express lanes are not a silver bullet for I-680, but should help


Bay Area freeway congestion delays hit a record high in 2016, up 9% from 2015 and a whopping 80% since 2010.

According to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) report released last month, Bay Area freeway congestion delays -- defined by MTC as time spent in traffic moving at speeds slower than 35 mph -- during weekday commute periods increased to 3.5 minutes per commuter per day, up 9% from 3.2 minutes in 2015. The delay was only 1.9 minutes per commuter per day in 2010.

Until a few years ago, there were a number of Tri-Valley freeway segments on the top-10 most congested Bay Area freeway list.

The only Tri-Valley freeway segment to make the 2016 top-10 list was the northbound I-680 afternoon commute from Crow Canyon Road in San Ramon to Contra Costa Boulevard in Pleasant Hill. MTC is hoping to change this when express (toll) lanes from Alcosta Boulevard to Livorna Road northbound and from Rudgear Road to Alcosta Boulevard southbound open on Monday morning.

Express lanes, also known as high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, are available to carpools and other exempt vehicles without charge, but solo-driver vehicles are required to pay a variable fee that is adjusted in response to demand during operating hours. Because solo drivers can choose to pay to use a lane they could not use before, capacity increases in that lane, freeing up the general lanes. In theory, at least.

Express lanes are credited for another Tri-Valley stretch of freeway being dropped from the top-10 most congested list. According to the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC), the express lanes that opened last year on I-580 from Greenville Road in Livermore to the intersection with I-680 in Pleasanton/Dublin made the difference because they maximized capacity.

However, building additional lanes as part of the I-580 project no doubt contributed to the positive result. It makes sense that travel speed increases and congestion decreases with more lanes available, regardless of the presence of a toll lane.

The $56 million I-680 San Ramon Valley express lanes project converts existing HOV lanes (one in each direction) into toll lanes, with no widening or additional lanes added. With more potential users of the far-left lane and more drivers maneuvering toward that lane, there seems a real possibility of some level of traffic flow improvement, but not nearly to the extent realized with I-580.

The I-680 San Ramon Valley express lanes will operate Mondays through Fridays from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. -- and remain free to all drivers outside those hours. When traffic is light during toll hours, the fees will automatically decrease so traffic moves in all the lanes and additional congestion is not created. However, it does not appear that there will be any "open to all" times during operating hours in this segment as there are on neighboring lanes on I-680 and I-580 in Alameda County.

Additionally, the express lanes would do little to reduce the number of collisions, stalls and other incidents on the roadways during rush-hour commute times, and these inevitably back up traffic -- as do just normal conditions at the key highway interchanges, I-680/I-580 to the south and I-680/Highway 24 to the north.

When crashes happen now, solo drivers will use the carpool lane to get around the incident, which helps alleviate some of the backup when a lane or lanes are closed. With a toll lane, though, this might not be an option, particularly for those without a FasTrak Flex toll tag.

A vehicle without a FasTrak moving into the express lane to avoid a backup could potentially be fined after the fact, as happens with automated toll enforcement at Bay Area bridges. License plate cameras identify vehicles moving through without a valid FasTrak and the vehicle owner gets a notice in the mail for the toll plus hefty penalties.

Express lanes are not the silver bullet that will immediately and completely fix the complicated and increasing problem of traffic congestion on I-680 in the San Ramon Valley. However, history shows these toll lanes can improve traffic flow.

We are hoping for a bit of relief to the congestion that plagues this stretch of freeway, but our hopes are tempered with realism.

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10 people like this
Posted by Bernie Fan
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:53 am

Another example of a benefit to the rich. They get to use the lanes as a single driver because they can afford the tolls. The rest of us who drive single get to use the crowded lanes for the "common folk". Also the electric/hybrid car people get to use the lanes without paying gasoline taxes. Who can afford electric cars? You guessed it, the rich people.

Maybe Bernie Sanders will straighten this out.

6 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:58 am

By what criterion (or criteria) will the success or failure of this project be judged? We're spending ton of public money to convert HOV lanes to ExpressLanes, and it is certainly a possibility that this will make things worse (especially for motorists who are not willing or able to pay the toll charges--but potentially for all). It would seem appropriate that we complete an objective evaluation of this change before converting several hundred more miles and potentially harming the commute.

2 people like this
Posted by Tri-Valley Resident
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:12 am

It will truly be interesting to see whether the "pay to drive" works for 680 congestion since the lane stops/starts northbound/southbound near Livorna; especially for northbound 680 in the afternoons, since it is the Concord 242 split off 680 to the Pittsburg area and resultant backup all the way down on northbound 680 that actually causes the congestion.

Three years ago, I commuted daily to Lafayette from Pleasanton with my daughter for the entire school year in the mornings, returning solo with an electric car with HOV free access, followed by driving solo in a gasoline vehicle around 3PM, returning with my daughter in the HOV lane as a carpool (hubby used the electric car upon my morning return for the San Jose commute). The HOV lanes were actually useless, in my opinion, since random necessity required me to drive the gasoline vehicle in the mornings; I saw very little difference (I drove the electric in the mornings anyway to save our carbon footprint, especially since we have solar panels to charge it without using the power grid).

During the morning, the major congestion northbound 680 started at Diablo and ended at Stone Valley, so we saved maybe 10 minutes. My return to Pleasanton in the mornings in the electric car left me bumper to bumper from 24 to Livorna, where the HOV lane is finally available. Once I entered the lane, I saved maybe 10 minutes because traffic clears again around the southbound El Charro or Diablo exits.

During the afternoons, the major congestion northbound 680 started at Crow Canyon. It was sad to see carpool HOV'ers not make any better progress than my solo gasoline vehicle because traffic actually backs up on 680 from Concord's 242 all the way down to Danville. Departing westbound on 24, it was sad to see those northbound 680 carpoolers at a crawl from the eastbound merge of 24. On my return from Lafayette, with my daughter in the car, 680 southbound only got thick at Crow Canyon to Bollinger, so the HOV saved us maybe 10 minutes, again.

Further case in point, in June 2016 at 4:30PM, I entered northbound 680 as a carpool in the HOV lane simultaneously with a solo driver, which was packed with grad night decorations. We were both headed to Treat Blvd for the grad night event. When I exited at Treat Blvd with two other people in my gasoline powered vehicle in the HOV lane, my solo driver friend was directly in front of me at the light after exiting at Treat Blvd. That was a huge surprise to me! She drove the entire time in the outer most lane.

Without an HOV all the way through the 24 interchange at 680 in both directions, as well as through the 242 split off 680 in Concord, I doubt we will see much change in 680 congestion.

This is just food for thought for any of our traffic engineers, who might read these comment threads, from someone, who has frequently traveled from the Tri-Valley to either Lafayette or Concord and back during commute hours.

9 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Stoneridge
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:15 am

The carpool lane on NB 680 is already moving at almost the same speed as the other lanes during rush hour. How will the addition of single, paying drivers improve traffic???

Answer: It will not improve traffic, but will bring in money.

7 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of Stoneridge
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:32 am

Toll lanes do nothing but shift congestion elsewhere. Look at SB 680. Before the toll lane opened between 84 and 237 that stretch of 680 was congested. All the toll lane did was shift the congestion north between 580 and 84. I also read toll lane fees have not covered operating expenses so it is a money pit as well.

5 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 11:36 am

So it appears from the comments posted so far, no one has posted a comment to support the notion that ExpressLanes have any benefit. Also, along with the ongoing operational cost of these lane, which may or may not be covered by tolls, it is clear that the $10's to $100's of million dollars to create/convert the lanes to ExpressLanes are straight out of our taxes.

Ask yourself the questions: would you prefer to spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating express lanes from existing HOV lanes or filling pothole? Or not increasing taxes?

14 people like this
Posted by CC
a resident of Amador Estates
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Why can't they just widen the road, add another lane?

1 person likes this
Posted by Gene
a resident of Happy Valley
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:15 pm

The way I see it is our best hope for traffic relieve is metering lights and their ability to keep too many cars from being on the freeway. The key measure of traffic should be flow density, how many cars move through one point. A three lane freeway with cars moving at 60 mph transitions 180 cars a minute. When too many cars are let on the freeway, congestion occurs and traffic slows. At 30 mph only 90 cars a minute pass and at the typical high congestion rate of 10 mph only 30 cars pass through per minute. It seems counterintuitive, but when traffic slows to 10 mph the actual number of cars moving along is about 80% less than when cars are moving at 60mph. With metering lights now in place, simply slowing the flow of cars onto the freeways could make a big difference. It would be a little more frustrating waiting to get through the metering light but once on the freeway you would more than make up for that lost time.

4 people like this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Oct 6, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Bernie fan
- I pay less than $150/mo for my ev. Only for the rich? Give me a break. Or in your view of the world is everyone deserving of a $150k the expense of those that earned it?

Regarding 680, the hov lane being single direction is the 2nd biggest flaw, the first being hov lanes. We should be employing variable lanes (ie golden gate bridge) over static lanes

4 people like this
Posted by Traffic Engineers are Clueless
a resident of Foothill High School
on Oct 7, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Not sure how this helps. It just congests the remaining lanes. Traffic engineers aren't the sharpest tools in the shed.

5 people like this
Posted by Scammers
a resident of Foothill High School
on Oct 7, 2017 at 4:38 pm

What's next they are going to build a 580W to 680S flyover and charge toll?

4 people like this
Posted by PTown Dad
a resident of Amador Estates
on Oct 8, 2017 at 4:05 pm

The BIGGEST problem with traffic congestion is the morning commute going from 580 westbound to 680 southbound. All of the jobs in Silicon Valley are attracting people in east Pleasanton, Livermore, Tracy, Mountain House and beyond. Yet there is a single land ramp from 580 W to 680 S. We need a flyover just like the other ones at that junction. That alone will solve many problems with the morning commute.

1 person likes this
Posted by jvillar
a resident of Amador Valley High School
on Oct 10, 2017 at 10:37 am

I think this was meant to say
'commute periods increased to 3.5 minutes per commuter "mile" per day...'

If it takes Pleasanton person 1.5hrs to commute 30 miles...then it's a 3 minutes per Silicon Valley.
1.75hrs to commute 30 miles is 3.5 minutes per mile to Silicon Valley....

1 person likes this
Posted by DKHSK
a resident of Bridle Creek
on Oct 11, 2017 at 8:10 am

DKHSK is a registered user.

As I travel on 680 more than I like, the fact is this lane WILL NOT impact already heavy traffic.

I've noticed that in the evening commute hours, Northbound lanes backup in Danville right around Sycamore and they don't speed up until AFTER the 24/680 interchange. The HOV lane ends shortly before S. Main street in Walnut Creek.

All this being said, some might bite the bullet and pay for the privilege of getting ahead by just a few miles, but as with Southbound travel through Sunol, not enough will take advantage.

As soon as they hit S. Main they'll be right back in the traffic.

This was a half-baked plan to make more revenue. Traffic will not ease significantly (or at all) for most of the drivers.

1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Lewis
a resident of Las Positas Garden Homes
on Nov 27, 2017 at 9:30 pm

Peter Lewis is a registered user.

Interstate 680 highway is definitely busier than it used to be in 2015. 9% busier, to be precise. To get your research papers done, go toWeb Link. Although express lanes can’t solve it completely, but should be of some help.

3 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Parkside
on Nov 28, 2017 at 8:30 am

Yo Gene... metering lights are not the answer. All they do is tie up city streets. It has taken me upwards of 30min to travel a quarter mile to get on fremont metering lights to 680. When they were off it was a dreamy 5min max. Once of N680 is horrible by automall pkwy but it shouldn't take me 30m+ just to get on the freeway from Osgood which is like a block.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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