Studies have found express lanes are widely accepted after being implemented and do not cause cut-through traffic in nearby communities as many fear, said a consultant working on the express lanes project in San Mateo County.
Those are just two takeaways from research on a variety of academic and case studies conducted by consulting firm Arup, which is working on an equity study for the above project. The findings were presented during an Express Lanes Joint Powers Authority meeting Sept. 11.
The San Mateo County Express Lanes project is currently under construction. When complete in 2022, there will be one new lane in each direction of Highway 101 in San Mateo County between Interstate 380 and the Whipple Avenue exit in Redwood City.
The far left lane in each direction will then be converted to an express lane, which promises speeds of at least 45 mph for users at all times, even rush hour. Single occupancy vehicles will have to pay a toll that will fluctuate based on traffic volumes while buses and carpools of three people or more will be able to access the lanes for free.
According to Arup’s research, acceptability of express lanes after implementation is “widespread” and the evidence does not support claims that traffic will be diverted through nearby communities.
“Case studies that have been done before and after have not really found that express lanes generate a lot of cut-through traffic concerns,” said Autumn Bernstein, a senior planner with Arup.
Bernstein began the presentation by noting congestion pricing can reduce congestion and air pollution and also improve mobility and access for everyone.
“So in other words, congestion pricing works,” she said.
Congestion pricing schemes are also generally considered more equitable than the status quo methods used for funding such as sales or gas taxes, Bernstein said.
“For example with sales tax everybody pays a sales tax whether or not you have a car. Just thinking about congestion pricing at all it’s very much a user pays principal and for that reason it’s considered equitable,” she said.
Bernstein also said the direct benefits of express lanes accrue to higher income groups more than others because higher income drivers can afford to use the facilities more frequently. Higher income drivers also tend to drive at peak commute times whereas low-income users tend to have different work schedules, she said.
“If you’re driving every morning on Highway 101 between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. the express lanes are going to create more value for you than if you’re driving through at 5 a.m.,” she said. “The benefits are accruing to higher-income groups but they’re also paying for it.”
Finally, Bernstein said low-income drivers are a small share of peak-period traffic — just 5% in the Bay Area — and are therefore less likely to pay the highest tolls.
The equity study will ultimately result in a low-income assistance program aimed at mitigating impacts to low-income drivers. Bernstein cited on such program in Los Angeles County that offers eligible county residents a one-time $25 toll credit and an automatic waiver of the $1 monthly account maintenance fee.
In that county, 461,121 express lanes transponders were issued and 7,991 people participated in the above low-income assistance program, which comes out to 1.73%.
Board Member Emily Beach, also Burlingame mayor, wants San Mateo County’s version of the low-income assistance program to get to at least a 5% participation rate to match that demographics’ share of peak-period traffic.
“We don’t want to diminish the program and have such a big net but at the same time we really have to help people realistically. It’s so expensive to live here,” Beach said.
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