San Mateo County Highway 101 Expansion Moves Ahead With Express Lanes

Options for Highway 101 in San Mateo County include widening it from 8 to 10 traffic lanes to install standard carpool lanes or express lanes, or converting an existing lane into an express lane. Image: TransForm
Options for Highway 101 in San Mateo County include widening it from 8 to 10 traffic lanes to install standard carpool lanes or express lanes, or converting an existing lane into an express lane. Image: TransForm

San Mateo County’s effort to expand Highway 101 from eight to ten traffic lanes moves ahead next month when an $11.5 million update of the project’s environmental review begins. County transportation officials had planned since 2009 to expand the highway with standard carpool lanes, but agreed last year to consider installing Express Lanes as well, an option favored by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

Express lanes are free for buses and carpools, but charge a toll to solo drivers during congested hours to ensure the lane remains free-flowing, and have been installed on Highways 680, 880, 580, and 237. If built on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, express lanes would someday extend for 58 miles from San Bruno through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to Morgan Hill.

“The idea here is that we would create a more reliable travel time within that lane and that overall we increase the person throughput,” explained San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) Deputy Project Manager Leo Scott to the agency’s Board of Directors in May when the express lane options were announced.  “We only expect more trips later, and with limited right-of-way, the best use of [Highway 101] is to get more people in fewer vehicles.”

The City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) of San Mateo County, responsible for the highway project’s environmental review, originally favored widening a 14-mile segment of Highway 101 between San Bruno and Redwood City from eight to ten lanes with standard carpool lanes. But MTC predicts those new lanes would be jammed with traffic the day they opened – in 2024 at the earliest. The new carpool lanes will have cost up to $215 million, according to an April 2016 project update by Caltrans [PDF].

Buses stuck in traffic on today's Highway 101 in San Mateo County. Planners hope to move more people in fewer vehicles by installing express lanes. Photo: TransForm
Buses stuck in traffic on today’s Highway 101 in San Mateo County. Planners hope to move more people in fewer vehicles by installing express lanes. Photo: TransForm

But converting an existing lane on the highway to an express lane would move traffic faster in all lanes and carry more people in fewer vehicles, according to analyses conducted by MTC in 2015 [PDF] and TransForm in 2013 [PDF]. Such a lane could also be installed for $109 million in as little as three years. Corporate bus fleets, now stuck in the same slow-moving traffic as solo drivers, are expected to expand with faster-moving and reliable express lanes. Revenues from the tolls charged to solo drivers could be invested in better transit service, possibly including public buses on the highway, rather than paying off the extra $100 million in construction costs needed to widen the highway to ten lanes.

“If [conversion of an existing lane to an express lane] is selected as the preferred alternative, it is anticipated that it would require an increased use of buses, vans and carpools (mode shift from single occupant vehicles),” states the April 2016 project update.

This scenario depends on successfully shifting about 10 to 15 percent of solo drivers on the highway to transit and carpools, cutting traffic by 1,000 vehicles an hour.  MTC proposes reinstating express SamTrans bus service cut in 2010 and providing new highway bus service, expanding private employer shuttles, and increasing carpooling. Private employers would need to beef up their own Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to further cut solo driver trips.

County transportation officials estimate that the Highway 101 project’s environmental review will take 28 months, after which carpool lanes or express lanes could be installed if funding is available.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    It should cost $100 to drive alone down 101. If there’s not enough traffic we can think about lowering the price, but let’s start somewhere.

  • RichLL

    Have you polled the voters about the idea of charging $100 to drive 40 miles? At least suggest something with a snowball in hell’s chance of being approved by the people.

  • Gilla

    Imagine if Caltrans took that money and put it into public transportation instead. Bloody waste!

  • This is what SANBAG should do with I-10 instead of building two new lanes in what would turn out to be one of the most expensive expansion projects in the country in a county with one of the poorest cities in the state.

  • By converting an existing lane to an express lane, it will lay the foundation, literally as well as figuratively, for public and corporate transit buses to use the corridor.

  • Toll schedule is based on a per-mile schedule, so it would be up to MTC, presumably, to determine it. Most tolls are now dynamic, i.e., they fluctuate with level of congestion to keep traffic running at 45 m.p.h.
    In Southern California, METRO charges a minimum toll per mile of $0.25 and the maximum toll per mile is $1.40.

  • RichLL

    When I suggested that any proposed toll had to be OK with the voters, I didn’t literally mean that there would be a voter initiative to set the toll. But rather that the traffic authority that has the power to set it cannot charge too much more than what voters and drivers can afford without getting their political masters in electoral trouble.

    And $200 for a commuter round-trip from SF to SJ and back is way beyond what people would tolerate.

    Now, if it were $20 round-trip AND there was a special lane that guarantees that the drive takes no more than an hour, then I think there would be demand for that.

    In other words any such toll should be:

    1) Not seen as punitive, egregious or extortionate
    2) Something that market demand would bear
    3) Delvers something of value in return i.e. less congestion and higher average speeds for those who pay, and maybe everyone else as well.

  • JustJake

    101 isn’t a toll road. Express Lane conversions represent a “taking”. MTC is clueless. The road in question is an arterial on a, wait for it…. peninsula. And Southern California’s traffic dysfunctions are legendary, and not relevant to the Bay Area.

  • Dudley John Fournier III

    I work in San Mateo and live in SF (in the Richmond). I have to drive every day to get to work. It takes me about 35 minutes each way. Compare that to public transit, which would take me 1 hr on the bus to get to the Caltrain station, 30 min – 1 hr on caltrain, then a 15 min shuttle to my office. (1hr 10min daily vs. 3hr. 30min+ daily). I’m sorry, but I do have a life and want to spend as much of that life outside of commuting as I can.

    You’re saying i should be charged an additional $26,000 per year to get to my job because realistically, I have to take my car to get there? How about we build a real public transit option for people who make the commute to/from the peninsula before we go charging “congestion charges” ok?

  • Flatlander

    The “takings” clause pertains to private property. Not a public highway.

  • farazs

    While Jeffrey’s comment is glib, you should realize that having to expand 101 is also a type of congestion charge — one that everyone ends up paying to save *your* time, including the people on the train!

    Funny how they keep finding money to expand road networks while twiddling their thumbs on Caltrain electrification which should have been done like 2 decades ago. Drivers wondering why public transport is not competitive is the last straw — its because roads eat up all of the funds, duh!

  • crazyvag

    What about “Optimized HOV”? Aka the same configuration as 101 has from SJ to Redwood City? Keep the existing Auxiliary lanes and just add signs and paint to lane #1? The cost should be even lower than the $11.5 million spent on the study, we give faster movement to buses and doesn’t preclude conversion to HOT later…

  • Dudley John Fournier III

    Generally I agree, and I wish we did more to fund public transportation throughout the Bay Area. For myself, if I could take a proper rail / mass transit line that was reasonably time efficient, then I would take it. But because I drive, and others like me drive, the funding goes to making sure I can keep driving. It’s not how I wish it were, but it’s the way things are.

  • Jimbo

    great news. i will gladly pay a toll to be able to move faster on the 101. we need more lanes north of there as well heading into SF

  • If I feel entitled to it, it’s taking!

  • mo toons

    Additional lanes help nothing without education and perhaps more accountability. Bay area drivers are some of the most inefficient/selfish drivers I’ve ever seen. If we could change certain driving behaviors, perhaps we could improve the flow of traffic as well.


San Mateo County officials are desperate to widen Highway 101 from eight to ten lanes at a cost of over $300 million. Photo: Andrew Boone

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