Officials praise I-580 express lanes for first-year results

'Huge relief to the commuters ... a great game-changer,' Haggerty says

Interstate 580's toll express lanes through the Tri-Valley marked their one-year anniversary last month, and so far, the numbers show they're providing much-needed traffic congestion relief as planned, according to Alameda County officials.

The express lanes, which are free for carpoolers but charge fees to solo drivers, have been used approximately 30,000 times per day since opening mid-February 2016, resulting in quicker, more reliable trips for those users while also helping reduce congestion in the general purpose lanes, according to the Alameda County Transportation Commission (Alameda CTC).

"The express lanes have been a huge relief to the commuters and have been a great game-changer in relationship to quality of life," Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose district includes Livermore and Dublin, said during a late-morning media event in a cul-de-sac parallel to the freeway Thursday.

"People are frustrated in this corridor, so I think they were excited to see some relief," Haggerty added. "I think that for a lot of reasons people use these lanes, and I've heard that there's a lot of happy users in the corridor."

The express lanes consist of two lanes eastbound and one westbound through Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore on I-580.

Always free for carpoolers and other qualifying vehicles with a FasTrak Flex tag, the lanes charge a toll to solo drivers for access from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. With the dynamic pricing system, a motorist's toll rate is locked in as soon as they enter the lane, and the rate remains the same for the duration of their trip, regardless of any rate changes during that time.

Express lane drivers are experiencing more travel time reliability and higher speeds, averaging 10 mph faster than general purpose lanes and ranging between 5 mph to 25 mph depending on location and time of day, according to Liz Rutman, senior transportation engineer for Alameda CTC.

"The key takeaway is that they appear to be working in the way they were intended to work," Rutman said Thursday morning, reflecting on the first-year data.

The I-580 project, which began construction in June 2014 and cost an estimated $55 million, converted the eastbound high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and another lane into two express lanes from Hacienda Drive to Greenville Road in Livermore.

In the westbound direction, a single express lane stretches from Greenville to the San Ramon/Foothill roads overcrossing -- there had been no carpool lane on that side of I-580.

Express lane access is nearly continuous, except for limitations eastbound between Hacienda and Fallon and El Charro roads and westbound between Hacienda and San Ramon Road marked by double white lines.

The I-580 express lanes followed the addition of new driving lanes in each direction as part of separate HOV and auxiliary lanes projects, which when coupled with express lane implementation brought the price-tag to $345 million for those improvements to the Tri-Valley corridor.

"We added new lanes to the corridor and we added capacity, but we are managing how that capacity is used by giving significant benefits to express lane users and the carpools who travel in them for free," Rutman said. "But it's also benefiting the general purpose lanes. We've added capacity and removed these vehicles from those lanes."

The express lanes were used more than 7.6 million times between February 2016 and last month, increasing each month from opening through June after which it began to level off and average about 30,233 daily trips, according to Alamada CTC data.

Last month, 38% of vehicles in the express lanes were eligible toll-free users while the rest were single-occupant vehicles (52%) or violators without FasTrak (10%), officials said.

Compliance and safety associated with the express lanes have also improved throughout the first year, according to Capt. Christopher Sherry, commander of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Dublin Area Office.

"We're excited to see the popularity of the express lanes taking off," Sherry said Thursday. "More people are participating in the system, more voluntary compliance and less people ducking in and out causing crashes. We achieved what we hoped to achieve."

While the express lanes have appeared to provide relief on the freeway, there is still more work to be done to improve traffic conditions in that part of Tri-Valley, according to Haggerty.

"I don't think our job is done in this corridor. I think we need to continue to look at options," he said, pointing to efforts such as express buses, pushing BART to extend its line to the ACE train in Livermore, bracing for increased semi-truck traffic, work on the I-580/I-680 interchange and finishing Highway 84 enhancements. "We have a lot of work to do."

Other key statistics

Here is a snapshot of other key data and information about the express lanes released by the Alameda CTC:

* Approximately 11% of drivers in the corridor use the express lanes.

* Roughly 6% of the corridor's solo drivers opted to be toll-paying express lane users rather than drive in general purpose lanes.

* The busiest day recorded to date was Nov. 18, the Friday before Thanksgiving, which saw 42,551 trips.

* Most users pass through the corridor: Westbound, 38% of users exit in the Tri-Valley while the rest continue through the I-580/I-680 interchange. Eastbound, 26% of express lane users exit here while the rest continue to the Altamont Pass.

* The average toll charged westbound was $1.62 and eastbound was $2.13. Toll data apply to all solo-driver trips in express lanes, whether abbreviated or full end-to-end. For full trips, the highest toll eastbound was $9 on 12 days and the highest westbound was $9.75, recorded on one day.

The agency uses dynamic pricing for its tolls, with rates going up or down to help traffic move smoothly. Tolls increase as express lane congestion increases -- in an effort to discourage solo drivers from using the express lanes. The logic is reversed when congestion eases.

* The express lanes generated $9.5 million in gross revenue from February 2016 to January 2017. Toll revenues will first go toward covering operation and maintenance costs for the express lanes, with remaining funds used for other transportation and transit efforts along the I-580 corridor, according to Alameda CTC.

* Express lanes are free to access for carpools, vanpools, public transit, motorcycles and eligible clean-air vehicles. All users must have a FasTrak Flex reader, which features multiple settings depending on how many people are in the vehicle.

Other express lanes

* The Alameda CTC is set to begin construction by the end of this year on a new express lane south of Pleasanton, on northbound I-680 from Auto Mall Parkway in Fremont up to Highway 84. Those lanes are expected to open by late 2019 or early 2020, Rutman said.

The northbound I-680 project is the first of a two-phased approach to bring an express lane along northbound I-680 between Highway 84 south of Pleasanton to Highway 237 in Milpitas -- a project that also calls for freeway widening and several auxiliary lanes connecting on- and off-ramps.

Southbound I-680 already has an express lane from Highway 84 south of Pleasanton to Highway 237 in Milpitas, which opened in September 2010. The southbound stretch is currently restricted access, but the plan is to change it to an open-access express lane concurrently with the northbound phase one, which will also be open access, Rutman said.

* Meanwhile in the San Ramon Valley, construction is ongoing for the express lanes on I-680, which are now scheduled to open this summer, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is overseeing that project.

The new I-680 express lanes to the north are converting existing HOV lanes from Alcosta Boulevard in San Ramon to Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek (southbound) and Livorna Road in Alamo (northbound), about 23 miles in all. No freeway widening is occurring

As for long-range plans on I-680 north, the San Ramon-Walnut Creek segment is the first of three proposed MTC projects aimed at creating express lanes most of the way from Alcosta to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.


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