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July 30, 2008 > Construction to Begin on I-680 Express (SMART) Lane

Construction to Begin on I-680 Express (SMART) Lane

By Simon Wong

Given the high price of gas, environmental concerns and that the Bay Area has some of the worst traffic conditions in the United States, it was difficult not to notice the spate of public announcements and transport-related activity during the week beginning July 14, 2008.

On Monday, the Alameda County Transport Improvement Authority (ACTIA), the public body responsible for administering the 2000 Measure B half-cent transportation sales tax in Alameda County, briefed the press with eagerly-awaited updates on transportation projects that will be implemented within the next five years and outlined how $60 million is spent annually for Alameda County cities, county and transit sponsors.

ACTIA and its Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) jointly hosted a Transportation Forum at Fremont Main Library, later that week. Seven project sponsors, including the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency (ACCMA), presented to the public.

Ray Akkawi, ACCMA, announced that construction of the I-680 Express Lane, which is also known as a SMART lane (formerly HOT - High Occupancy Toll lane), will commence in Fall 2008 and is expected to last until 2010.

Interstate 680 has been selected for improvement because of its high traffic congestion. It will be the first public highway in Northern California to see congestion pricing. Similar Express Lanes already operate in Southern California. Legislation (AB 2032) passed in 2004 and environmental clearance in February 2006 paved the way for improvements to be made to provide a southbound, SMART lane along a fourteen-mile stretch of I-680 from Route 84 in Alameda County to Highway 237 in Santa Clara County. It will run from Pleasanton across the Sunol Grade to Milpitas.

The Express Lane is a carpool (diamond) lane that vehicles with two, or more, occupants, motorcycles, transit buses, and eligible hybrids can use gratis. Solo drivers will be allowed to use the excess capacity in the SMART lane by paying a toll that will vary according to both prevailing congestion levels in the Lane itself and the distance to be travelled but once a driver has entered, the fee is fixed. This dynamic pricing means that the toll will be higher during peak hours, when traffic volumes are high, to avoid congestion in the Express Lane, thus, maintaining speeds and good traffic flow. At the same time, giving sole-occupancy vehicles the option to use the Express Lane will improve flows in the regular lanes. Users of I-680 should see shorter journey times.

The SMART Lane will have multiple entry and exit points and will be separated from general purpose lanes with a double-double-yellow line. Interim entry points are to be located at Sunol (SR 84) and at Washington (SR 238). Interim exit points will be located at Mission Blvd (SR 262) and north of Calaveras Blvd (SR 237).

Solo drivers will need a FasTrak(tm) transponder and account which will be charged on leaving the SMART lane in the same way that a BART ticket is charged at the end of a journey. Two prices will be seen on the approach; the cheaper being the one payable if the driver exits early and the other for travelling the entire length of the SMART Lane.

ACTIA has committed $25.8 million of 2000 Measure B funding toward the $226 million overall cost of the project. $36.5 million accounts for the toll component. The technology needed to operate this fully electronic system is far more sophisticated than that used on the Bay Area's bridges. There will be no toll booths or traffic gates though California Highway Patrol will be present to attend to any "incidents." Solo drivers using the SMART Lane without a FasTrak(tm) transponder will be subject to a $340 fine.

Toll revenues will be used to operate and maintain the Express Lane; any residual monies will be applied to other carpool facilities, including the northbound diamond lane, and other transit services in the I-680 corridor.

The City of San Francisco has just announced plans to study a "congestion zone" in part of the City to reduce the number of vehicles entering and to improve circulation. Vehicles must pay a fee to enter the zone during certain hours. The preferred solution to managing congestion on the I-680 is the construction of a SMART corridor, whose excess capacity can be used to maintain traffic flow in all southbound lanes rather than a congestion zone in the south which is the destination of most daily commuters.

According to Christine Monsen, Executive Director, ACTIA, "London and cities in other countries have implemented a congestion zone. Since voters approved the specific projects, we found that the I-680 Express Lane is actually one of the more controversial ones when we approached voters. People were concerned that they were being made to pay to use a public facility. Poll results showed, however, that people would be absolutely willing to have the choice to use such a facility at some time. So, we've just looked at this corridor because it is in our Expenditure Plan. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the funding for the nine counties that touch the Bay, is actually looking at implementing HOT Lanes on a whole system of the freeways. But in this region, San Francisco is really the only one that has looked at that [sic. a congestion zone] in terms of their downtown area."

The cost of entering a congestion zone is a deterrent to road users if set at an appropriate level with consequent improvements in traffic circulation. Generally, such zones are found in the largest cities within a region. It is a consideration for all metropolitan areas that experience congestion but not always necessary or practical especially if poorly served by public transit. The City of Fremont, essentially designed for the motor car, has noted the idea but not taken it any further.

The results of this project will determine the rollout of future SMART Lane Corridor improvements in Alameda County.

For more information about the I-680 SB Express Lane, visit www.680smartlane.org and www.actia2022.com

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