Cardboard "passengers" who ride with carpool-lane cheaters could become obsolete when the freeway lanes are converted to allow solo drivers.
Under a plan for State Highway 85 and U.S. Highway 101, carpool lanes will be converted into express toll lanes, allowing solo drivers with FasTrak transponders to drive in the fast lane at any time.
Toll rates have not been determined, but similar express-lane projects across the country have fees ranging from $1 to $10, based on time of day, the distance driven and the level of traffic in the express lane.
Cars with two or more occupants, motorcycles, transit buses and eligible hybrid vehicles can still drive in the lanes for free, according to Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which will set the toll price.
The Highway 85 express lanes will run its entire 24-mile length and would open in 2012. Highway 101 might have two express lanes in each direction, which would stretch 41 miles from Morgan Hill to Whipple Road in Redwood City, according to the VTA. It would open in 2015.
The lanes would be separated from regular lanes by a double-yellow line. Electronic signs would display the toll, which would vary, for solo drivers using FasTrak. An overhead antenna would read the car's FasTrak transponder and deduct the fee. The toll would adjust so that traffic maintains a minimum of 55 mph, according to VTA.
The express or "smart" lane program could double the number of cars allowed to travel in the carpool lanes according to Jennie Loft, VTA spokeswoman.
"The existing carpool lanes are underutilized. For example, on SR 85 the carpool-lane volumes vary between 600 and 1,000 vehicles per hour. The carpool lanes can accommodate up to 1,650 vehicles per hour, while maintaining a high level of service," she wrote in an e-mail.
The project cost is estimated at $496 million -- $96 million for Highway 85 and $400 million for Highway 101. Net revenue between 2015 to 2035 could reach $1.2 billion in future-year dollars, Loft said.
The VTA board approved the project in December.
Express lanes have been popular and successful in other parts of the country, according to the VTA. San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City are among cities having added express-lane programs. Alameda County is also installing express lanes to Interstate highways 680 and 580. Those "smart lanes" are due to be completed by 2010, according to VTA.
In a study by engineers at the University of Central Florida, some drivers in Orange County, Calif., reported a 40-minute cut in their commute times when using the express lanes on a 10-mile toll road.
VTA claims the lanes will help lower pollution by reducing the number of vehicles stuck idling in traffic. A growing population could add to already existing congestion, and express lanes could alleviate future traffic problems, agency officials stated.
Santa Clara County estimates a 35-percent growth in population and a 22-percent increase in jobs -- 513,000 new residents and 430,000 new jobs -- by 2035, according to the VTA.
But funding for transportation improvements is projected at only a fraction of that amount. New freeways will only increase by 5.6 percent in capacity. State and federal funding for more than a $4.3 billion list of improvements has not materialized, VTA officials have stated.
Considering the disparity between drivers' needs and financing, more efficient use of existing roads would help solve part of the problem. And some of the tolls could be used for other transportation improvements in the 85 and 101 corridors, including bus and other services, according to the VTA.
A final vote by the VTA board on the designs of the express lanes will take place later this year. Caltrans and California Highway Patrol will also have input into the designs of Highways 85 and 101.
The express lanes are part of the 800-mile Bay Area Express Lanes network developed in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's regional transportation plan through 2035.
The California State Assembly will hold a hearing on Assembly Bill 744 on April 20, which would authorize the Bay Area Toll Authority to acquire, construct, administer and operate the express-lane-network program on state highways in the nine-county Bay Area. VTA was authorized to implement the express lanes project by the state legislature in 2004 and 2007.