Search title image


January-February 2009

HOT Lanes Aim to Zap Traffic, Cool the Planet

If there is a centerpiece to the Transportation 2035 investment package, it is an 800-mile web of high-occupancy toll lanes, known as the Regional HOT Network.

HOT lanes are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes with a twist: Buses, carpools and vanpools can use the lanes free of charge, while solo drivers pay for the privilege of using available excess capacity in the diamond lanes. “HOT lanes provide a form of ‘congestion insurance’ by giving travelers the option of a delay-free trip when they need it most,” said Lisa Klein, a senior planner with MTC.

MTC joined together with Caltrans, the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency and other partners in the fall of 2008 to break ground on the region’s first HOT lane — along 14 miles of southbound Interstate 680 through Alameda and Santa Clara counties, a stretch known as the Sunol Grade. That lane is scheduled to open in 2010, as is a second facility on eastbound Interstate 580 through the Tri-Valley area in Alameda County. Also in the works are HOT lanes on Route 85 and U.S. 101 in Santa Clara County.

Tolls for solo drivers will be higher when there is more congestion, and lower when the lane is less crowded — a concept known as congestion pricing, value pricing or dynamic pricing. Drivers will be able to pay their tolls electronically without slowing down or stopping, thanks to the FasTrak® toll collection system managed by MTC’s Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA).

MTC estimates that it will cost $3.7 billion to build the HOT Lane Network, and another $3.9 billion to operate it over the next 25 years, for a total cost of $7.6 billion. With gross HOT lane toll revenues expected to reach $13.7 billion over the same period, the remaining $6.1 billion in net revenue could be used to fund express bus service, rail extensions and rail-service enhancements along the HOT corridors, as well as interchange improvements and the like.

The high-occupancy toll lane on I-680 will be the first segment in a planned 800-mile Regional HOT Network that will extend from Sonoma County in the north to Gilroy in the south. MTC would convert to HOT lanes some 400 miles of carpool lanes that already exist or are under construction, plus 100 new miles of fully funded diamond lanes scheduled to be built in the next four years.

The revenue initially generated could finance bonds that could be used to construct an additional 300 miles of HOT lanes that close gaps and extend the system. “The Regional HOT Network is a strategy for accelerating completion of the region’s carpool- and bus-priority system,” said Klein. “The Bay Area could complete the planned carpool-lane network as early as 2016 — 20 to 40 years faster than if we were to rely on traditional state and local funding sources.”

By relieving congestion and increasing average travel speeds sooner than would be possible by building HOV lanes with traditional funding sources, the Regional HOT Network is projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 10 million tons over the next 40 years, and to save some 3.4 billion person hours of travel.

With stats like these, it’s no wonder an MTC poll taken in the spring of 2008 showed that 62 percent of Bay Area voters support the concept of a HOT network for the region.

HOT lanes have been in operation for more than a decade in Southern California and in Houston, and in the past five years have opened in Seattle, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.

While the California Legislature authorized a limited number of Bay Area HOT projects in 2004, additional legislation would be required to extend the network to 800 directional miles.

  1. The I-680 Express Lane is expected to operate 24/7 and will be separated by double yellow lines and a chevron area.
  2. Electronic signs will display the current toll for solo drivers with FasTrak®. The toll will vary based on the level of congestion in the I-680 Express Lane and will be adjusted to maintain a minimum speed of 55 mph.
  3. Signs and lane striping at access points will provide drivers safe entry and exit.
  4. For solo drivers who choose to use the I-680 Express Lane, an overhead antenna will read their FasTrak® transponder and the correct toll will be automatically deducted from their prepaid FasTrak® account — no toll booths, no slowing. I-680 Express Lane rules and use will be enforced by the California Highway Patrol using visual and electronic means.

(Graphic provided by Valley Transportation Authority)