South San Francisco councilmembers this week expressed a desire not to see a lane added to a 9 mile stretch of Highway 101 that partially runs through the city, citing increased pollution from vehicles that could affect nearby neighborhoods.

A proposed project would add managed lanes to the span, currently four lanes wide from the Interstate 380 interchange to the San Francisco/San Mateo county line. The task could be carried out by either converting an existing lane or by widening the freeway to accommodate a new lane.

While the council will not be making the ultimate decision, the critique could help sway the direction of the project, a collaboration between the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County and Caltrans.

Adding a lane, councilmembers said, would ultimately increase the amount of people traveling on the thoroughfare, something that could have negative effects for the adjacent downtown neighborhood.

“We represent that neighborhood, we have to make sure and think about what would happen if more cars are allowed on the freeway,” Mayor Mark Nagales said. “I think for all of us here, we’re concerned about adding additional cars that will have a huge environmental impact on that neighborhood.”

The managed lanes would be implemented as high-occupancy vehicle lanes (carpool lanes) or express lanes (similar to carpool lanes with the added option for lone drivers to pay a fee for use).

The lanes would join with express lanes currently being built south of the I-380 interchange to Whipple Avenue in Redwood City, and south of that, from Whipple Avenue to the southern county line where an existing carpool lane is being converted to an express lane. Those lanes are planned to open this year and more lanes are planned to be converted further south. A managed lane project is also being considered to continue into San Francisco via Interstate 280.

The agencies cite “significant congestion” on the corridor through South San Francisco and limited existing incentives to carpool or use public transit. Congestion, according to the agencies, will worsen as the population increases in the region and as traffic returns as the pandemic subsides. Stated project goals include to increase mobility on the corridor, reduce travel times for managed lane users and increase carpooling and transit use.

Joe Hurley, the county Transportation Authority director, emphasized the goal of the project is to facilitate the movement of more people, not vehicles.

“If you can incentivize people to either take public transit or carpooling, you’re going to be more efficient with the infrastructure that you’ve got,” he said.

The agencies hope to finalize a design by 2025 and complete the project in 2027. The proposal is currently in the environmental scoping phase and will next undergo environmental review and project approval, expected in 2023.

A complicating factor that could limit the viability of converting a lane is state law, which allows for converting an existing lane for traditional carpool use but prohibits converting a lane to be used as an express lane.

Councilmember James Coleman expressed concern that an express lane would mean wealthy drivers could pay to avoid congestion. Express lane pricing would be determined based on current traffic conditions, with prices increasing during peak times with the goal of keeping the lane flowing freely.

“If you can afford it, you can use that lane and not carpool,” he said. “Personally, I’d prefer a dedicated [high occupancy vehicle lane], a carpool lane, or even a bus lane.”

He requested also to know the cost difference between adding a lane or converting a lane, pointing to investments that could be made in public transit in the likely event a lane conversion would be cheaper. Cost estimates were not immediately available.

Councilmember Eddie Flores said he would like to see increased outreach to communities near the freeway, pointing to “vulnerable disenfranchised” residents who would be most affected and unlikely to be reached by online surveys or presentations during government meetings.

Nagales said he would like the council to have a discussion on the matter to provide formal input to the agencies upon completion of the environmental impact study. Coleman said he would prefer the council to approve a resolution opposing the expansion option prior to the environmental review.

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