After over two years of construction, the opening date for San Ramon Valley's Interstate 680 express lanes are officially scheduled to open this Monday (Oct. 9).
The $56 million project has involved converting the single high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane in each direction into a toll express lane as a tool to help reduce congestion. It includes one northbound express lane from Alcosta Boulevard in San Ramon to Livorna Road in Alamo, and one southbound express lane from Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek to Alcosta Boulevard.
The lanes are part of a larger express lanes network being implemented by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Caltrans, designed to help reduce traffic congestion.
"There is no magic bullet for the 680 corridor," said John Goodwin, MTC's senior public information officer. "The opening of the express lanes is not going to eliminate congestion. What it will do is relieve congestion, especially by making travel times in both directions more reliable."
Everyone will be able to drive in the lanes, but only HOVs and select others can use them for free during toll hours: carpools, vanpools, eligible clean-air vehicles, motorcycles and buses all count as HOV for tolling purposes.
All vehicles will need a toll tag. Toll-exempt vehicles can set the FasTrak Flex toll tag in the "2" position for two-person carpools and the "3+" position for all other carpools, while solo drivers can use either a standard FasTrak toll tag or a FasTrak Flex tag set in the "1" position.
The lanes will charge tolls from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and will be managed and monitored by MTC. Until the Monday morning opening, the lanes will still operate as regular HOV lanes.
Enforcement, according to MTC project manager Barbara Laurensen, will look similar to that across Bay Area bridges. Cameras are posted to snap photos of license plates, and when someone travels on the express lane with the tag set in the "2" or "3+" position, a "beacon" will be triggered that will alert California Highway Patrol to verify that the car has the appropriate number of riders.
Violation fees start at $25 and escalate up to $70.
A key component of the plan is "dynamic tolling" -- as traffic increases, tolls increase, and vice versa. The minimum toll price will be 50 cents and the maximum toll will be set by supply and demand. Laurensen said there may be times during the day when the lanes will be "open to all" -- as will be the case always from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night.
There are two zones in each direction, and the pricing signs along the freeway will dictate how much solo drivers will end up paying to reach the end of the zone versus the end of the express lane.
Goodwin cautions commuters against having too-high expectations during rush hour.
"Drivers who are moving through the corridor during what we call the 'shoulders' of the commute probably will notice the biggest improvements," he said. "These are the times both before and after the morning and afternoon peaks. Drivers headed north between about 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. already have a reliable commute -- it's reliably dreadful; and the Express Lanes likely won't alter it all that much."
However, opponents to the project say that the lanes as planned will actually worsen the I-680 drive.
San Ramon Valley resident Bobby Lee has circulated a Change.org petition in the last few weeks opposing the lanes' implementation.
A large part of his problem with this particular project, he argues, is that the lanes will be operating during mid-day and other off-peak hours. Also, Lee says he finds it problematic that one lane will be converted into an express lane, pointing to other nearby projects that constructed an additional lane to be used as an express lane.
"The I-680 express lanes will create more congestion, not less," Lee said on his website.
As of Tuesday, the petition had about 100 signatures.
Additional express lanes are currently being planned for I-680 between Walnut Creek and the Benicia-Martinez Bridge by MTC, Caltrans and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. Ultimately, MTC and its partners hope to develop a 550-mile network of express lanes by 2035.
For more information and updates, check the the express lanes website.