As construction progresses on the Express Lanes project on Highway 101 so too does a study aimed at addressing long-standing equity concerns associated with the project.
Scheduled to be complete by late 2022, the $581 million project aims to reduce congestion on the highway by adding a lane in each direction between Whipple Avenue in Redwood City and Interstate 380. The far left lanes will then be converted to express lanes, which promise speeds of at least 45 mph at all times.
Express lanes will be free to buses and carpools with three or more people, but solo drivers will have to pay a toll to use them. The toll will fluctuate based on traffic volumes and could cost as much as $3 per mile.
Many remain concerned about charging a toll to drive on a public highway that’s unaffordable to many. The equity study was launched in response to those concerns and could result in a discount for low-income motorists along with other policies aimed at reducing impacts for disadvantaged communities.
Whatever policies officials settle on will be implemented on a pilot basis starting in fall 2021 when the first section of express lanes opens on Highway 101 south of the San Mateo County border. What’s being called the pilot equity program will be funded by toll revenue.
“The pilot equity program will provide meaningful transportation benefits to disadvantaged communities and/or populations who are identified through the course of this study,” reads a slide presented during an Express Lanes Joint Powers Authority meeting Friday. The JPA includes elected officials in San Mateo County charged with deciding future toll policies, among other responsibilities.
The study will examine potential barriers beyond the cost of the toll, including the method for paying it. A consultant working on the study noted 12% to 20% of residents in urban communities do not have bank accounts, which are typically needed to pay express lane tolls. While using express lanes, motorists are charged the toll electronically via a transponder in their car that’s connected to a bank account.
The study will also take into account people who may not live in San Mateo County but commute to it for work.
“I was really glad to see one of the considerations is for people who live beyond San Mateo County because a significant number of jobs in San Mateo County are held by people who live in the adjoining counties,” said JPA Chair Don Horsley, also a San Mateo County supervisor. “The equity study has to consider those folks as well.”
During the meeting, consultant Matt Click cautioned funds will be limited and the equity program will by no means be a panacea.
“We’re going to find that we have more need than we have money,” he said. “We’re going to be stuck creating winners and losers because what we’re going to want to do we’re not going to be able to afford to do.”
Also during the meeting, officials announced an updated risk assessment for the Express Lanes project that anticipates a potential revenue loss up to $41 million. That’s if a variety of worst case scenarios related to COVID-19, potential wildfire and smoke as well as civil unrest occur.
If there’s a COVID-19 breakout among construction workers, for example, then the project will have to be shut down and costs will increase, said project manager Leo Scott.
“We’re aware of the potential for about $41 million of risk, but bear in mind risk is anticipating the worst case scenario that could happen,” Scott said.
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