San Mateo County Officials Insist on Failed Strategy of Widening Highway 101

San Mateo County wants to add two more lanes to Highway 101, a strategy that has failed to reduce traffic congestion. Photo: Andrew Boone

San Mateo County officials are moving forward with plans to widen Highway 101 in a futile attempt to pave their way out of traffic congestion.

The City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) has dismissed a more effective and less costly proposal to avoid highway expansion by converting two existing traffic lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes, also known as express lanes.

“If we build more capacity for cars, what we’ll end up with is more cars,” said Joseph Kott, vice president of Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities and a former transportation planning manager for C/CAG. “We’ll have spent a lot of money to get more cars, and will live with all the consequences of having more cars. It’s just not very sensible.”

Rather than convert two of Highway 101’s eight lanes to express lanes between San Bruno and Redwood City, C/CAG wants to keep all existing lanes free for solo drivers while expanding the roadway to 10 lanes.

C/CAG plans to conduct an environmental review that will only evaluate the addition of carpool lanes, which could then be converted to express toll lanes. The agency’s board passed a resolution greenlighting the study on June 11.

But according to a 2013 report from Kott and TransForm called “Innovation Required: Moving More People with Less Traffic,” converting existing lanes to express lanes would move 75 percent more people on 101 using 10 percent fewer vehicles, at far less cost, compared to building new, un-tolled carpool lanes. Even C/CAG admits that widening Highway 101 would increase driving and air pollution, and result in less transit ridership.

Initially, C/CAG did not include express lanes in its proposal at all, but will now study them for its widening.

Express lanes are free for buses and carpools, but allow solo drivers to access them for a price, which is adjusted throughout the day based on demand to keep the lanes free-flowing. Many members of the C/CAG board said they oppose any express lanes, while some don’t even want to restrict the new lanes to high-occupancy vehicles, according to a recent San Mateo Daily Journal article.

A solution without new lanes would save an estimated $130 to $160 million in construction costs, according to TransForm’s report. That figure was reaffirmed in a study [PDF] commissioned by C/CAG, which put the savings at about $151 million.

But C/CAG’s study also concluded that converting existing lanes to express lanes would incur $238 million in transit operation costs over 20 years to accommodate commuters shifting from driving to transit — putting the agency’s total cost estimate of lane conversions above the cost estimate for expansion. That analysis conveniently failed to account for increased revenue from tolls, transit fares, or planned transit expansions, such as Caltrain electrification, already underway.

“Improving transit has a whole slew of benefits, not just reducing congestion for solo drivers,” said Kott. “A cost-benefit analysis would show a different result. The value of the benefits to safety, public health, and mobility of the improved transit needed to avoid an expansion of Highway 101 far outweigh the costs.”

C/CAG’s analysis assumes that major increases in driving are inevitable, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The traffic models used by C/CAG are predicated on past behavior, and they don’t take into account the emergence of transportation management associations all along the Peninsula, or the growth of private transit along the 101 corridor,” said Kott. “Are we going to see a continuation of high household trip generation rates? We definitely will if we keep building more highway capacity.”

C/CAG’s $16.5 million request for funds for the environmental review of the Highway 101 expansion will be up for approval by the SMCTA Board of Directors in September.

  • Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

  • lunartree

    How do they expect HOV lanes to move more people? People will switch to transit before carpooling so it seems like adding HOV lanes is simply a way to make traffic even worse so that more people switch. Perhaps bus lanes on the highway would have a real impact on the number of people per hour carried, but then you’d need to weigh the benefit of that over using that money to get Caltrain up to speed sooner rather than later.

  • murphstahoe

    How does *adding* an HOV lane make traffic worse?

  • Andy Chow

    101 needs to become a second transit corridor, since Caltrain will be maxed out eventually. One of the quicker ways is to improve the freeway shoulders to allow for buses to use. Since a lot of companies provide their own buses so a lot of transit operating costs are absorbed by the companies.

    A lot of the freeway congestion on 101 is due to the transbay traffic on San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges. So if transportation options are improved on these routes it can take burden off 101. HOV on ramps for bridge approaches can help speed up transit for San Mateo Bridge. Dumbarton corridor will require more work, though.

  • murphstahoe

    Widening the freeway – oh my.

    By the time such a ridiculously costly endeavour could be completed, we’ll have electrified Caltrain and deployed self driving cars, both of which will reduce overall vehicle usage dramatically – such that we won’t need the lanes.

  • jonobate

    The proposal isn’t to add a HOV lane, it’s to add a HOV/HOT lane. In other words, if you’re not carpooling, you can pay a small amount to bypass the congestion. That seems to me like it would be an attractive option for many solo drivers.

  • SFnative74

    Seems a little disingenuous by C/CAG to tack on the cost of additional transit operations to the cost of converting existing lanes to HOV. To be fair and accurate, are they tacking on the numerous external costs associated with encouraging more driving to the proposal for adding lanes on 101? Seems to me they already know what they want and are stacking the deck against converting existing lanes to HOV lanes.

    We should look to experts in European transport, who have great transportation systems partially because they honestly assess as many external costs as possible. When doing so, it becomes very clear that a “car-first” transportation approach is nearly always more costly and less efficient.

    Here’s one example: http://habitat.aq.upm.es/boletin/n28/ncost.en.pdf

  • baklazhan

    HOV lanes are also bus lanes.

  • Artemisia1

    What is the opportunity for public input to this plan?

  • Sprague

    Ignoring the increased environmental and fiscal consequences of highway expansion is irresponsible to current and future residents. To knowingly increase air pollution and decrease transit ridership (by widening 101) is a major fail – especially when it’s now widely known and understood that this will further climate change and thereby contribute to this very freeway being flooded by rising sea levels. Furthermore, to undermine Caltrain, Samtrans, and other county funded public transit services is very poor planning. Caltrain has had unreliable public funding but despite this has rapidly increasing ridership. San Mateo County officials should know better. Innovation is required.

  • Affen_Theater

    Due to merging traffic at every on- and off-ramp, “freeway shoulders” are the worst place to put through traffic such as employer buses.

    It’s easy to see first hand that Dumbarton traffic is clearly the biggest contributor to afternoon NB 101 congestion between Mountain View and Menlo Park. The major Dumbarton approach exits are frequently backed up for up to a half mile onto 101 — causing major 101 backups into Mountain View because traffic doesn’t flow well past the long queues … and there are always clowns who block the slow lane trying to get into the middle of the queue and others who in frustration pull out of the queue and back into the slow lane.

    SMCo. is blowing it big time by just mindlessly widening 101; by not having an HOV lane (which employer buses, shuttles and taxis and SFO travelers could use to bypass SOV traffic).

    With the huge Facebook expansion directly _on_ the Dumbarton rail line, with massive jobs growth and redevelopment in Redwood City and up and down the Caltrain corridor, SMCo. and the region need re-prioritize rebuilding the transbay Dumbarton rail line so East Bay commuters don’t have to drive to their Peninsula jobs.

  • Andy Chow

    The freeway shoulders would only be used when the freeway speed drops significantly, and should only be used to connect auxiliary lanes. Minor changes to ramps and metering lights would be needed to make it work.

    It is not necessarily a substitute for full HOV lanes, but for HOV lanes to be truly effective for transit, dedicated on/off ramps and in-median transit stops would be needed, which is more expensive than just HOV lanes alone. Buses on shoulders allow bus stops on the sides and does not require buses to cross multiple GP lanes to access HOV lanes.

  • neroden

    Should be able to kill this with a NEPA lawsuit. This is a total failure to consider practical alternatives. And it’s a violation of California’s Greenhouse Gas law, if I’m not mistaken…

  • Alex Brideau III

    And the funds raised can be fed back into HOT lane improvements such as dedicated ramps, etc., which would help the efficiency and speed of bus transit in these lanes.

  • Andy Chow

    I think the concern is about adding lanes in general, whether it is HOV or HOT. There’s a concept to convert one of the lanes to HOT, but it is questionable whether it is enough (the existing HOV lanes south of Redwood City regularly see back up and no better than GP lanes). VTA thinks that it needs 2 HOV lanes to have enough inventory for HOT.

    Dedicated on/off ramps require rebuilding of the interchanges and increase their footprints.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I used to use the HOT lanes in the LA area fairly frequently and only once or twice encountered speeds below 45 mph. Otherwise they have been free flowing and a great time saver versus the general lanes, unlike my experience with HOV lanes, which I’ve found tend to backup almost-but-not-quite as much as the general lanes. I wonder what about the Bay Area HOT lanes causes them to bog down more?

  • Andy Chow

    It depends on the minimum occupancy required. For El Monte Transitway, the minimum occupancy for free access is 3 during rush hours. I-80 in the East Bay has the HOV-3 requirement as well.

  • Kiran

    I don’t think they want to spend any money on the roads period. Looks at the mess of 101/92/Hillsdale Blvd. In the last few years I have seen 101 in Palo Alto resurfaced multiple times and now they’ve added 2 carpool lanes and there is still f’all being done by San Mateo County.

    What is really baffling is why San Mateo County thinks they a different type of solution is needed to what Santa Clara county has done on 101 from Mountain View to Redwood City. Are the traffic patterns that different or the types and numbers of vehicles that different across the county lines. They could add a single carpool lane for minimal money today just by adding signs and painting diamonds on the left lane.

    Now they are just kicking the can down the road with yet another study. F’ing government.

  • chairs_missing

    Indeed. Down here in LA we just spent a billion adding 2 lanes to the 405… and traffic is actually worse at rush hour then it was before.

  • lukebc

    I’d sure like to know where they plan to find the room for those extra lanes between Hillsdale Boulevard and Peninsula Avenue.

  • Leo2

    The solution to the gridlock before Hwy 92, is simple, but the leaders of Foster City and Redwood Shores need to wake up. A simple two lane road connecting the Redwood Shores area to the Foster City area would do it. This section of Hwy 101 North is horrid, because all the folks that work near or around Oracle head to the freeway just to get to the San Mateo bridge. If a two lane road was available, 50% would probably go the back way instead of going west to the freeway. But the road would need to go over about 700 feet of wetland space, so i doubt it will probably never happen. look at Google maps and you’ll see what i am suggesting. Connect Foster City Blvd. to Shearwater Blvd. Problem solved.

  • I would say because they aren’t HOV all day. Better to convert existing bandwidth to HOV/HOT.

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