The Lexus Lanes — and why they won’t work

Instead of rewarding carpools and getting people out of private cars, we are rewarding wealth and encouraging more people to drive. How does this make sense?

One of the hallmarks of neoliberalism is the application of market solutions to market-generated problems. It’s an approach that’s bound to fail, because market-generated problems can only be solved by non-market solutions; but to the neoliberal mind, no-market solutions are anathema. Unfortunately, this approach is guiding city and regional planning in the Bay Area.

Now you can ride faster — if you pay for it

A case in point is the October 5 hearing on “Job and Office Trends” at the SF Planning Commission. As Tim Redmond reported, the planners focused on the severe imbalance between jobs and housing in the city, and how that imbalance is making it impossible for many people who work in San Francisco—especially those of modest means—to live near their jobs. What the planners missed was the source of that problem: their own unending pursuit of new commercial space, especially new office space. In Redmond’s words:

The entire presentation by the department staff worships at the altar of growth. When you look at the slides, it’s as if we are competing with the rest of the nation for who can grow faster, and have the most “healthy” economy, which means the fastest growing.

It also means the economy with the highest prices. Never mind that the tech influx is the major source of the astronomical housing prices and the accompanying displacement of economically vulnerable San Franciscans. During public comment, longtime affordable housing advocate John Elberling noted that he hadn’t heard “the word gentrification” or anything

about the human consequences of accommodating growth, which is clearly the current mission of the San Francisco Planning Department, even when the growth, the commercial growth, is clearly more than we can accommodate.

The same “marketizing” growth mania is driving another misguided planning scheme: the installation of HOT (High Occupancy Toll) or express lanes on Bay Area highways. On October 9, new HOT lanes went into operation on I-680 between Walnut Creek and Dublin. Former HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes, twelve miles southbound and eleven northbound, have been converted into express lanes that will operate between 5 am and 8 pm. (In the Bay Area, the term “rush hour” long ago became an anachronism.)

The difference between HOV and HOT lanes is that solo drivers are prohibited in HOV lanes but allowed in HOT lanes—for a price; thus the latter’s pejorative designation, “Lexus Lanes.” The price fluctuates according to demand. On 680 it goes from a fifty-cent minimum on up, with no maximum. The changing prices are displayed on signs mounted in the highway median. Drivers pay the price shown on the sign at the time they enter the express lane.

At a press briefing last week, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin said that on the existing express lanes on eastbound I-580, the highest toll is typically nine dollars, occasionally rising to $10.50. The average daily toll on 580 is $1.80 eastbound and $1.60 westbound. According to officials, in peak hours and directions, cars in those Express Lanes travel 4-23 miles per hour faster than those in the general-purpose lanes.

Gary Richards, who writes the “Roadshow” column for the Bay Area News Group, has a different take, as indicated by his October 11 exchange with a reader:

Q: Eastbound Interstate 580 over the Altamont Pass has become a complete disaster. My commute has increased by 20 minutes since the additional lanes were opened, but traffic folks said the new truck lane might shave 30 minutes off this trip.    Rob White

A: I know they did. But since the truck and express lanes opened last year our insane traffic has gotten amazingly more insane — congestion is up 9 percent over 2015 and 80 percent since 2010.

All drivers in HOT lanes must have a FasTrak or FasTrak Flex toll tag to travel in the lanes between 5 am and 8 pm. To travel toll-free as a carpool, motorcycle, or eligible Clean Air Vehicle, drivers must have a FasTrak toll tag set in the 2 or 3+ position, as appropriate. Solo drivers can use either a standard FasTrak toll tag or a FasTrak Flex toll tag set in the 1 position. A car entering a HOT lane will trigger a laser-activated camera that will photograph the car’s license plate. The read points are situated about every mile of the HOT lane segment, which includes stations on the highway median where CHP cars can park and watch for cheaters.

Until I attended the briefing, I thought that express lanes were intended to decrease congestion. Not so. Their purpose, said Caltrans Deputy District Director Sean Nozzari, is to “help us manage traffic congestion better” by opening “available capacity to solo drivers.” HOV lanes usually have room for more vehicles. HOT lanes encourage—in plannerese, incentivize—solo drivers to fill that room, when it exists; no solo drivers in will be allowed in the I-680 express lanes on weekdays between the peak of the peak hours, 4:30 and 5:30 pm. Associated rationales for the new lanes are “to give solo drivers a choice” and create greater “reliability” for people about their commutes.

If the existing carpool lanes are almost at capacity, how will charging tolls help?

What the official line doesn’t acknowledge is that HOT lanes ultimately worsen congestion, because they draw more drivers onto the roads. In fact, to pencil out, the HOT lines need congestion. More precisely, they need solo drivers, because the high-occupancy vehicles ride for free. As MTC’s 2008 HOT Network Study observed: “Where carpools fill the lanes, HOT lanes will generate little revenue and may fail to cover their operating cost” (p. I-3).

Nevertheless, HOT lanes are supported by two prominent Bay Area thinks tanks-cum-advocacy organizations, SPUR and TransForm. SPUR, by far the more enthusiastic of the two, claims in its 2016 report Fossil-Free Bay Area that

[e]xpansion of road pricing could quickly increase road capacity, reduce congestion, encourage modes of travel other than driving, speed up and improve the reliability of transit and goods movement, and reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. (p. 32)

Accordingly, SPUR would like to see tolls added to all lanes of Highway 101 and on bridges in the currently unpriced directions. By contrast, TransForm’s 2013 white paper, “Moving People, Not Cars,” urges MTC to convert existing, leftmost general purpose lanes to express.

Both SPUR and TransForm condition their support for HOT lanes on two conditions: don’t expand roadways for new HOT lanes, and use toll lane revenues, as Fossil-Free Bay Area puts it,

to support alternative transportation in communities that do not have reliable transit and are unlikely to receive it soon. In addition to walking and biking investments that benefit everyone, congestion management agencies could support mobility for low-income people through subsidizing car-sharing, carpooling and even private taxi services like Lyft Line and UberPool.

The SPUR report also recommends “means testing, base on license plate capture, to allow low-income people to pay reduced or even zero fees.” TransForm’s 2013 white paper, “Moving People, Not Just Cars,” goes much further, arguing that MTC should

  • Dedicate at least 50% of HOT revenues to provide new transportation choices—transit, vanpools, carpools, and other alternatives to solo driving—along HOT corridors and to mitigate the network’s impacts on low-income families

  • Create a transportation choices expansion plan as part of the express lane network and include a commitment that with the opening of every new HOT lane, there will be a simultaneous improvement in transportation choices along the same corridor, over and above existing service.

  • Design and implement mitigation to ensure low income-families receive an equitable share of the benefits and do not bear a disproportionate burden of the HOT network

  • Expand its environmental justice analysis of the HOT lane network to include a primary research question on the distribution of benefits across different income and ethnic groups, considering the differences in expected frequency of use of the HOT lanes.

But the Financial Assumptions Report for Plan Bay Area 2040, approved by MTC and the Association of Bay Area Government in July, states that “[o]ver the course of the Plan period,” the gross toll revenues for express lanes in Solano, Contra Costa, and Alameda Counties, “will be wholly dedicated to meet the operations, maintenance, and capital financing of the [Regional Express] Lane Network ” (p. 5). MTC and Caltrans hope that the new HOT lanes on 680 will yield $8 million a year from solo driver tolls.

Compare that figure with HOT lanes’ enormous cost. The ones on 23 miles of I-680, funded with bridge tolls, cost $56 million. The ones being constructed on 52 miles of I-880, also funded with bridge tolls, cost $120 million. But those numbers are just drops in the HOT lane bucket:  Plan Bay Area 2040, approved by MTC and the Association of Bay Area Government in July, allocates $6 billion to develop and operate a 550-mile network of express lanes on the state highway system (p. 50)—the largest such network in the U.S. There are no plans for HOT lanes in San Francisco.

Future express lanes are going to be a lot more expensive than the ones just installed on 680, because they will involve expanding the highway itself, not just converting a former HOV lane. That prospect has elicited TransForm’s intense criticism. From “Moving People, Not Just Cars”:

MTC plans to collect $6.5 billion in tolls from drivers and spend most of the money to build—or pay financing costs for—hundreds of miles of new highway lanes. There is no funding to expand transportation choices to support long-term congestion reduction. Nor is there funding for programs to ensure low-income families receive equitable benefits from this new transportation system.

In short,

Once billed as an innovative way to help manage traffic and provide a wide array of new transportation choices, MTC’s Express Lane Network has now primarily become a highway-building program whose main beneficiaries will be solo drivers who can afford to buy their way into new lanes.

For all its costliness, HOT lane infrastructure has a short shelf life—ten years at most. The technology is provided by TransCore, the Nashville-based company that’s one of the largest toll operators in the nation. At the June 25, 2014, meeting of the Bay Area Infrastructure Financing Authority, the joint powers entity formed by MTC and the Bay Area Toll Authority, MTC staff asked BAIFA to approve a five-year, $63 million-dollar contract with TransCore to provide toll system integration and maintenance services for BAIFA’s initial express lane projects on I-680, I-880, the westbound approaches to the San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridges, and I-80—ninety miles in all. As recorded in the meeting’s minutes:

Commissioner Spering mentioned how technology changes quickly in five years and wondered to whom the property will belong and how we move forward with technology changes. [Staffer] Macrae responded that the Host System should last seven to ten years, and with contract extensions, TransCore would be able to maintain the system to the end of its lifecycle. At that time, BAIFA will be able to procure a new system.

The BAIFA board unanimously authorized MTC Director Steve Heminger

to negotiate and enter into a contract with TransCore to design, implement, integrate, and test the express lanes toll system on the identified roadways and maintain for a 5-year period with an option to extend annually for an additional 5 years…

Then there’s the unfairness issue. Why should ability to pay determine who gets to use any part of a public freeway? When I raised that concern at the press briefing, officials shrugged it off, stating that studies showed that HOT lanes are used by people at all income levels.

I haven’t read any studies, but I have looked at the Federal Highway Administration’s primer on Congestion Pricing. The primer considers the Frequently Addressed Question: “Isn’t pricing inequitable towards low-income motorists?” Its answer: No. Why not? For one thing, “surveys conducted for projects in operation show that drivers of all income levels use priced express lanes.” Plus,

Although many low-income users don’t choose to use the tolled facility every day, they support having the option. For instance, a low-income parent racing to avoid the financial penalty associated with being late for pick-up at a day care facility, or for work, is often pleased to have the option of paying a fee to bypass gridlock in the regular lanes. In fact, a high level of support for San Diego’s HOT lanes comes from the lowest income users (70 percent)”

The child-care-pickup scenario was also invoked by Caltrans and MTC officials at the press briefing.

None of these rationales changes the fact that HOT lanes place a greater financial burden on low-income drivers. The FHWA primer goes on to argue that “a well-designed value pricing plan can be less burdensome to low-income citizens than current systems that are based on regressive taxes, such as car registration fees, sales taxes, and the gas tax.” So what? “Value pricing” is also regressive, TransForm’s and SPUR’s proposals to make it equitable notwithstanding.

So, let’s review:, HOT lanes encourage more people to drive and especially more people to drive solo; are fabulously expensive; use technology that needs to be replaced every ten years or sooner; and foster inequity by charging people to drive on nominal freeways. Why, then, is MTC pursuing them?

The answer: Like San Francisco’s planning staff, MTC is hooked on market-led growth. Each HOT lane project has a website that, among other things, poses the question “Why Express Lanes?” In each case, the first factor cited is “regional growth,” illustrated by a bar chart showing that by 2040, the Bay Area is projected to have 2.4 million more people, 1.3 million more jobs, and 823,000 more homes. Those numbers come from Plan Bay Area 2040. During the contentious meeting at which PBA 2040 was approved, Association of Bay Area Governments President Julie Pierce stated: “This plan is a suggestion of how we might build out [housing] following market forces.”

The main reason that driving on the region’s most heavily traveled freeways has become a hellish experience is that the Bay Area’s burgeoning tech industry has poured thousands and thousands of new vehicles onto the roads. Plan Bay Area 2040 marks the “record employment levels” reached “during a technology boom rivaling the ‘dot-com’ era of the late 1990” and the exasperating consequences for travelers in the region: “record levels of freeway congestion and historic crowding” on BART, Caltrain, and Muni.

But to the region’s public officials, the crowding is, in the words of MTC spokesman John Goodwin, “by and large a good problem to have,” because “it’s tied to the strength of the regional economy.” For MTC, as for the San Francisco Planning Department, the defining criterion of economic strength is job growth. Job growth’s side effects, be they clogged roads or dissipated communities, are significant but unavoidable, not to say welcome, because job growth trumps all. And, for all their proposals to mitigate congestion and inequity, SPUR and TransForm also genuflect to growth.

An economy premised on the market criterion of infinite growth in the service of maximum profits inevitably fosters inequity and degrades the environment. Such an economy is weak, not strong; destructive, not beneficial. Its proponents have mistaken the problem for the solution.

And let’s be clear: what’s propelling the Bay Area’s economy are not inexorable market forces but decisions taken by the region’s policymakers in behalf of the market. The side effects of those decisions—steadily worsening commutes and astronomical housing prices—are now threatening the market itself, as start-ups are choosing to start up elsewhere and the people who keep the place running are forced to live far from their workplaces in the region’s central cities.

To state the obvious, which continues to elude the local “deciders” and their foremost policy advisers: the solution to the problem is to stop worshipping market-led growth and to make fairness, environmental protection, and genuine livability the measures of economic strength. Consider, for starters, how many public buses and shuttles you could buy with $6 billion.

Next year Bay Area voters will have a rare chance to weigh in on the uses to which tolls from all the state-owned toll bridges except the Golden Gate will be put. SB 595, sponsored by State Senator Jim Beall (Santa Clara County) and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 10, authorized MTC to put Regional Measure 3 (RM3) on the ballot as early as next June. The measure will ask voters to decide whether to finace $4.45 billion worth of new transportation projects by raising tolls by up to $3. The projects in the RM3 expenditure plan include $300 million for Bay Area Corridor Express Lanes.