Previously jeopardized plans to consider carpool lanes on the increasingly congested Highway 101 can now move forward as local companies have pledged a $3 million contribution.
San Mateo County transportation officials have been working to cobble together funding for a study since losing an anticipated $9.4 million from the California Transportation Commission when it announced cuts due to a drastic drop in gas tax revenue.
Now, plans to conduct an initial feasibility study of HOV lanes along a San Mateo County stretch of the busy freeway can proceed, said Sandy Wong, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments.
The estimated $11.5 million study will consider various options, such as adding a new lane or converting an existing lane to create either carpool or express/toll options for commuters, Wong said.
C/CAG is sponsoring the project and was pleased to receive the $3 million in private funds from the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, or SAMCEDA. The support comes on the heels of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission announcing it would seek to reallocate $8.9 million in federal funds toward the project, a move that must be affirmed by its board later this month.
Although SAMCEDA did not disclose the exact companies that pitched in, Wong said she heard Facebook and Google may have contributed — a move acknowledging how transit woes are affecting companies as well.
“It’s important to the private employers that they’re reducing congestion or providing more options for their employees to get to and from work; because with the high-level of congestion, they were having a hard time retaining their employees or recruiting new employees,” Wong said. “Congestion has certainly gotten a lot worse in the last couple years. So I think that’s sort of made the partnership of the public agencies and private a stronger reason to do that.”
Currently, HOV lanes end at Whipple Avenue and the initial study will consider extending them north toward Interstate 380 — a more regional effort may be to study extending carpool or toll lanes from San Francisco all the way to Santa Clara County. The initial environmental review of San Mateo County’s segment will include both options of creating a new lane in each direction as well as converting existing lanes, and whether to create carpool lanes or express lanes where single-occupancy vehicles can also pay for use, Wong said.
Ultimately, they will seek to stretch every foot and inch so as to avoid needing new right-of-way as much as possible, Wong said. For example, they may ask Caltrans for design exemptions, such using parts of existing auxiliary lanes or shoulders, Wong said, emphasizing the entire proposal is still in the very preliminary stages.
SAMCEDA CEO Rosanne Foust noted the Peninsula business organization has a long history of supporting efforts to reduce traffic congestion, such as electrifying Caltrain, expanding ferry service and improving mass transit.
Based on a funding agreement with the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, SAMCEDA is representing a consortium of private employers in their support of the environmental phase of the study, Foust wrote in an email.
“[Highway] 101 through San Mateo County is a heavily congested corridor resulting in single or multiple passenger vehicles experiencing delays. This congestion impacts the quality of life and the local economy in serious ways,” Foust said. “SAMCEDA believes 101 congestion is a regional problem and requires a commitment by public agencies, private employers and other key stakeholders to find solutions.”
The recent commitment is not the first time big-name employers have stepped up to consider traffic solutions. A recent $1 million donation from Facebook has enabled SamTrans to revive a study to refurbish the Dumbarton rail bridge, which could be used for not only new rail service, but possibly bus and bicycle use as well.
But funding for San Mateo County congestion-relief projects took a major hit this year after state officials moved to make up for a $754 million deficit in the State Transportation Improvement Program. Because the C/CAG’s HOV lanes would have been a new project under the state’s budget, support for the environmental phase was cut. The cutbacks were due to a drop in gas tax revenue and funding for already-approved projects was delayed a year, such as reconfiguring the El Camino Real and State Route 92 interchange. The county lost a total $16 million this fiscal year and a total $27 million over the next five years.
But with congestion continuing in one of the state’s most bustling economic regions, locals have sought ways to come up with funding alternatives. For example, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority may loan funds to keep the State Route 92 interchange on track for construction in the coming year.
Wong said C/CAG is now able to proceed with the HOV lane study with the assistance of local businesses. Plus the regional MTC funding, if approved, could further support a design stage. In total, the once potentially delayed study has rebounded with the county TA offering $8.5 million toward the study, SAMCEDA’s $3 million and the possible reallocated MTC federal funds contributing another $8.9 million.
“It was a huge challenge for us trying to get the state to keep that [funding,] but in the end we weren’t successful because the state simply did not have the money. But the positive thing is now, that $8.9 million I like to think, that sort of goes to compensate what we lost,” Wong said.
Although freeway expansion or taking away a lane of regular traffic to create an express/toll lane might be controversial, Wong noted the ultimate goal is to alleviate traffic.
“An express lane does two things, one if you carpool you get to use it for free, so we hope to encourage more people to carpool,” Wong said, noting buses and shuttles could use the lanes, perhaps encouraging more to take public transit. “And, people who pay to use express lanes, they’ve created that extra space on the general purpose lane and hopefully that will reduce some congestion.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106