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.