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October 11, 2005 > This road is no fool

This road is no fool

Carpool lanes get smart

The Alameda County Congestion Management Agency (ACCMA) has announced the construction of a "smart carpool lane" on southbound I-680 from Highway 84 eastbound intersection on the Sunol grade through the Highway 237/Calaveras Boulevard exit. This 14 mile stretch is designed to be converted from HOV to HOT and Smart! What does this mean to you?

First, a couple of definitions will help decode the jargon. "HOV" stands for High Occupancy Vehicle and designates a lane restricted to vehicles carrying multiple passengers and motorcycles - so-called diamond or carpool lanes. The acronym "HOT" stands for High Occupancy Toll and refers to a lane that allows single occupant use for a fee. And how does a HOT become smart?

TCV asked ACCMA Deputy Director Jean Hart for answers.

TCV: When is the smart lane on I-680 due to open?

Hart: We are currently projecting that it will open no earlier than the end of 2009.

TCV: How was I-680 selected for a HOT lane?

Hart: It was highly congested when we started this process several years ago. This had a lot to do with the booming economy in Santa Clara County. Economic changes lessened the congestion, but in the last year or so, it has been increasing again. With an improved economy, the congestion will continue to increase. We want to be ready for it.

TCV: How will the proposed smart HOT lane on I-680 differ from previously constructed smart lanes such as the smart HOT lane in San Diego?

Hart: The HOT lane in San Diego is about eight miles long with a concrete barrier that separates the so-called "express lane" from the general purpose lanes. They have approval to extend that facility and it is my understanding that they will be going to a soft barrier with multiple entry and exit points. Our project is different; we are talking about a painted barrier or separation (double-double yellow line) from the mixed flow lanes with multiple entry and exit points. If you enter the smart lane at Route 84 near Pleasanton, you can exit in two places prior to the end of the lane at Route 237.

TCV: Where will this lane be located?

Hart: On the far left of the roadway in place of the HOV lane that exists today.

TCV: Will vehicles that qualify to use the carpool lane still be able to use it without cost?

Hart: They would continue to use it for free just as they do now. There will be differences; we are proposing that the carpool lane operation be extended to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Also, at the present time, carpoolers can move in and out of the HOV lane at any place. Under the smart lane concept, they would be limited to moving in and out at the same places as HOT lane (single occupant) users.

TCV: How will single occupant vehicles pay the toll?

Hart: They will use a FasTrak(tm) pass which will automatically charge their account for the amount of the toll.

TCV: Is there a monthly fee or minimum usage requirement to have a FasTrak(tm) account?

Hart: No. There is no minimum usage requirement, administrative fees or transponder rental fee. We will have the same requirements that are in place for existing FasTrak(tm) accounts. There is some out-of-pocket cost to create an account balance using credit card, check or cash. The account is charged when using FasTrak(tm) on toll bridges or toll roads throughout the state. You can create a FasTrak(tm) account online. [Additional information is available at or by contacting the Bay Area Toll Authority (877) BAY-TOLL (877-229-8655)]

TCV: How will a carpool vehicle with a FasTrak(tm) transponder avoid the toll?

Hart: The transponder unit is put into a special bag that blocks the signal so the account is not charged. This is the same procedure used at toll bridges with FasTrak(tm).

TCV: Will the smart lane toll vary?

Hart: Yes. The charge will vary with congestion in the smart lane. By state legislation, we have to maintain a certain level of service. You can think of this as speed - between 50 and 65 mph. The way to control the number of cars using the smart lane is by price. If there are very few cars in the smart lane, the price would be low. As the number of cars in the smart lane increases, there is more potential for speeds to reduce, so the rate is raised to discourage additional single occupant cars from entering the lane.

TCV: What happens if there is a temporary and transient slowdown in the smart lane?

Hart: We are still in the design phase of setting rates. What we are looking at is a potential price change every three to six minutes. A 20-second change in traffic flow would probably not have any effect. Consultants and technology experts are figuring a mathematical formula to ensure that we can guarantee those entering the smart lane a minimum speed of 50 mph.

TCV: Is the rate set for a vehicle that enters the smart lane at the beginning?

Hart: Yes. They will see two prices. One will be the price if they exit early (Mission/Route 262) and another if they travel the entire length of the smart lane. Those prices are locked in. Others who enter later on will be advised through signage of the prevailing rate through the end of the smart lane.

TCV: Who gathers and administers the information from the smart lane?

Hart: The Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA). They, by state law, will handle all the back office accounting work. ACCMA is the lead agency of this project. [Note: A Sunol Smart Carpool Lane Joint Powers Authority with members from Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority, ACCMA and Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority has been authorized by the state to design, implement and operate the I-680 Smart Carpool Lane.]

TCV: Is there any time or circumstance when the smart lane will be available to all vehicles without toll?

Hart: Under normal circumstances, it is proposed that there would always be a nominal (25 cents) toll for lane use by single occupancy vehicles. If there was an incident or accident on a multi-use lane which caused significant problems, under a protocol yet determined, a message would flash indicating no charge on the toll lane. We have not identified all the potential circumstances yet.

TCV: Where does the revenue go?

Hart: Money collected will first go to operate and maintain the smart lane. Any excess revenues will go toward transit services within the corridor and additional HOV lane facilities within the corridor. We believe that maintenance of the roadbed should be the responsibility of Caltrans, the same as all state maintained roads.

TCV: Will there be more public meetings on the smart lane?

Hart: We intend to collect input throughout the design and operation of the facility. We do not have a schedule yet of when the next meeting will be or what approach will be used. We have talked about a task force of citizens and stakeholders to provide feedback to the policy advisory committee about design aspects since we are still in the early design phase. A "user's group" is also under consideration for when the smart lane is in operation.

TCV: How can people get more information about the smart lane or give comments?

Hart: I would direct people to our website, Information from our open house held last week is available and the survey form we passed out. The survey will be on the site for the next couple of weeks and we encourage people to complete it. From the website, people can email any comments they have.

There are still many questions to be answered. We want to make sure the entry and exit points are in the right places. We also want to make sure the access points are safe as well.

TCV: Are more smart HOT lanes in the works?

Hart: We have approval for a second HOT lane, but we have not yet determined where it will be located.

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