The traffic wizards and geniuses in our state have been at it again — this time in a big way that will affect highway motorists for years to come.
Gone is the concept that our roads are for all, day and night. On its way out is the notion that major highways should be freeways — because it seems the mental maneuvering of Caltrans is to create toll roads and get us to use public transit.
But will it "reduce congestion all along U.S. 101 corridor," as Caltrans claims?
Ha! We will see.
Their new Caltrans express system for U.S. Highway 101 and other major state routes was created, officials say, to better manage traffic congestion. What used to be HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes are now "express lanes," and they charge us a fee for usage for most of us (except carpools of three or more and a few other exceptions). No longer is use limited to commute hours: Now the express lanes are in effect from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays — 15 hours a day.
Surely, I don't have to point out that in addition to the money we will have to dole out to use our roads, plus the $25 initial FasTrak deposit we need to pay to use these lanes, Caltrans profits considerably. We drivers will be filling their coffers for years to come.
Caltrans officials calculate they will reduce traffic by charging us to use our roads, with the hope that the additional cost will induce more people to use public transportation.
C'mon. They and we all know how inadequate public transit is in this area, so much so that people are using it less and less, for good reasons.
What this new express lane concept really is: a complicated computer-based system that can quickly charge higher fees for roads that are being used. That has not happened here before.
The way the new lane configuration will be working on U.S. 101 is to take one or two of the highway left lanes on a four- or five-lane portion of U.S. 101 and turn them into express lanes. The remaining will remain regular lanes.
The fees will change based on the amount of traffic. A given segment (say Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto to Redwood City) will constantly fluctuate. The more traffic, the higher fees. Sometimes it might cost 50 cents to ride this strip of highway; other times $5 or $6.
There will be signs above announcing the express lane(s) are ahead, but no formal entry or exit lanes to and from these lanes, as happens elsewhere in the country. If you are driving in the highway's left lanes, you may realize you are now using the toll lane.
I worry about all those out-of-town drivers who suddenly confront our express lanes. Once they are on them, they unknowingly may ride for miles incurring higher tolls. Without a FasTrak card, drivers will be charged the full rate for segments of U.S. 101. There will be no toll booths, but there will be cameras that will record all drivers' license numbers. Bills will be sent to the users. The rates are announced at the entry point (say Oregon Expressway) and the rates may vary from area to area (also posted on the screen).
The problems I see are:
? The user fees for the express lanes are really a regressive tax. The fees will put a big financial burden on the poorer people who use U.S. 101 to go to and from work. Can they afford paying several dollars daily for this commute?
? Electric cars or plug-in hybrids will no longer be able to use express lanes for free, nor will those with disabled tags. Three or more in a car will not be charged for express lane usage, but two can use them at a fee, with 50% reduction if they use their FasTrak transponder, which they will have to purchase.
? Express lane charges will be passed on to taxi users and airport express vans, which we will pay.
? Fines will be severe — $491 or so — for those single-occupancy drivers who pretend to be a carpool (setting their FasTrak switch to "2" or "3+") and take the express lane.
? Organizers say this system will result in less traffic, which I don't quite get. If the regular lanes become jam-packed, are they suggesting we will instead use public transportation? Guess they are!
? If people don't use the toll lane because of cost, we will see a lot more traffic on the remaining regular lanes. I predict a lot of people will be angry. And if they get stuck in a traffic jam, road rage may erupt.
I drove north on U.S. 101 Monday at 11 a.m., and the rates were 50 cents to Marsh Road and $1 to Ralston Avenue on the express lanes. Traffic was light. Returning south minutes later, the charge was 75 cents from Woodside Road to the Embarcadero/Oregon off-ramp. Many of us use U.S. 101 not for commuting but to get from hither to yon, and if we are late for an appointment, we will use the express lanes.
I went online and bought my FasTrak card for $25, a 15-minute procedure. My logic: I will be using U.S. 101, so I better have a FasTrak card in my car.
I wish we had all been consulted in some fashion about this dramatic change on our highway system.
Nevertheless, I will try to be positive about Caltrans' pay-to-play approach to our roads. Maybe the wizards and geniuses will get out their wands, and after hearing from the public, make this system work. They will need a bit of wizardry.
This story contains 975 words.
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