New I-680 Express Lanes receive bitter welcome from residents

SAN RAMON VALLEY – Express Lanes set to improve flow, carpooling and carpooling enforcement, are now open from San Ramon to Walnut Creek on I-680, but most residents are already unhappy with the project.

The Express Lanes have replaced the existing HOV lanes from Alcosta Blvd in San Ramon to Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek. Carpools and eligible clean air vehicles will need a “FasTrak Flex,” a FasTrak with a three position switch, to use the new lanes. Users with a FasTrak Flex use the three position switch to indicate how many people are in the car, if the vehicle is a motorcycle, or a eligible clean air vehicle. Fare-paying drivers are able to use the lanes with a normal FasTrak.

The completed lanes, which are the first phase of a larger project to install Express Lanes from San Ramon to the Benicia Bridge, cost an estimated $56 million, with another $119 million expected for phase 2 and 3 that will bring lanes all the way to the Benicia Bridge.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the state agency that is responsible for the project, says the lanes will better utilize lane capacity, improve carpool lane enforcement, improve flow and generate revenue to build more Express Lanes.

The Commission also says the completed network of I-680 Express Lanes to the Benicia Bridge will provide reliable travel times for customers, manage traffic and encourage carpools.

Just weeks before lanes opened, one of MTC’s senior project coordinators, Barbara Laurenson, was met with the concerns of Danville residents during a presentation at the town offices. Laurenson said one of the main ideas around improving the flow of traffic is encouraging carpools, noting that existing HOV lanes on I-680 are difficult for CHP to monitor and enforce. She said new Express Lanes give CHP more tools to enforce carpooling.

Laurenson also emphasised the Express Lanes would generate revenue to build more Express Lanes and complete the network of Express Lanes.

One citizen shared concerns regarding the operating hours of the lanes, “in the middle of the day, when there’s no heavy traffic at all, I can’t even get into that lane, and no one can use that lane unless we are paying a toll/carpooling/clean air vehicle?… How is that going to make anything smoother?” Laurenson responded, “because there will be people willing to pay the toll and traffic will smooth out.” She also pointed out MTC didn’t want to make the lane free during non-commute hours because it would be a “consistency issue” but indicated that a monitoring center would be able to modify prices when necessary.

When asked, Laurenson said MTC did not have projections for how much revenue would be generated from the lanes, or how much would go to enforcement, saying revenue projections done for MTC’s past traffic projects were expensive and inaccurate.

On Twitter, we asked our followers what their opinion of the project was. We received over 800 votes: 23% had a positive opinion of the project, 22% had no opinion and 55% had a negative opinion. One follower wrote, “Only in Taxifornia do we get to pay more taxes on the taxes we already pay for our freeways!” Another follower wrote, “Instead of reducing congestion for ALL who suffered through the construction, it’s a cash cow for those who are willing [to] pay #LexusLanes.”

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