San Mateo County is poised to waste more than a hundred million dollars on a highway expansion while passing over more effective, less expensive options to improve people’s commutes.
Even as total traffic volumes have remained flat over the past decade on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is conducting a $2 million study of expanding the highway with new carpool lanes. But highway expansions are not going to solve San Mateo County’s problems. “If we had unlimited amounts of money and no concerns about our impact on the environment, we could keep doing that,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. “But the last 50 years of experience suggests that paving our way of out congestion is not working.”
In a new report, “Innovation Required: Moving More People with Less Traffic,” TransForm calls on C/CAG to consider an alternative that they say would be cheaper, more effective at reducing traffic congestion, and would improve public transit. Instead of adding carpool lanes, TransForm is pushing for conversion of existing highway lanes to what are known as optimized high occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes for short, which are free for carpoolers but available to solo drivers for a fee. The report, which includes a traffic analysis conducted by former C/CAG Transportation Programs and Planning Manager Joseph Kott, concludes that this option would move more people with less traffic at just one-tenth the cost of the agency’s current plans.
Building the more expensive, less productive options would waste a lot of revenue from the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax, Measure A, that could be put to much better use. With an estimated $130 – $160 million in construction cost savings, as well as new toll revenue, converted HOT lanes could provide a windfall of funds to improve non-driving commute options in San Mateo County, such as Caltrain, SamTrans, and the county’s disjointed bicycle and pedestrian network.
Compared to C/CAG’s proposed carpool lanes, converting existing 101 lanes into express lanes would carry 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles, while costing less than one-tenth as much to build, according to TransForm. The express lanes would provide a congestion-free lane for transit and carpoolers while also reducing single-occupant vehicles in the remaining lanes.
Those figures are based on the same assumptions used by C/CAG for other traffic analyses but include factors ignored in C/CAG’s June 2012 carpool lane feasibility study, which was the basis for the decision to further examine additional carpool lanes. Kott, the former C/CAG planner, said transportation agencies often neglect to account for factors such as growing demand for public and private transit, the potential for Transportation Demand Management programs to provide financial incentives for non-driving commutes, and induced driving demand created by highway expansions.
“We’re still stuck in this mode of saying that all we can do is provide for private motor vehicle travel on our highways and that’s all we can forecast,” said Kott. “We can do multi-modal forecasts too, but we have to have the right assumptions.”