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Proposed toll lanes on Highway 101 draw opposition

Highway 101
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Caltrans’ proposal to install a new toll lane that would connect to an existing, modified carpool lane on Highway 101 is facing opposition from local leaders like Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

A Caltrans project in the works for more than 10 years is just now catching the eye of many concerned residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties who would be affected by it – toll lanes on Highway 101.

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian said the proposal to add toll lanes to major freeways emerged when he sat on a transportation committee as a state senator. He had a bad feeling about the lingering financial effects the fees would have on residents who already had a hard time balancing the expenses of living in Silicon Valley.

“I was concerned that folks who were beginning to look at freeways as revenue sources may squeeze out those who could not afford additional fees,” Simitian said in a phone call with the Town Crier last week. “There was a potential to create two Californias – one for folks who are prosperous and one for folks of modest means. Those who couldn’t afford the fees would be stuck with a second-tier infrastructure.”

Simitian went as far as writing his own bill in 2010 to prevent carpoolers in California from ever paying tolls. Senate Bill 1245 passed unanimously in the Senate but stalled in the Assembly.

Representatives from both Caltrans – the agency proposing the managed lanes project from Mountain View to San Bruno – and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said the bill did not give them enough flexibility to continue with their projects.

“That only made me more nervous,” Simitian said. “It gave a legitimacy to my concern.”

The financial model behind the toll lanes adds up in Simitian’s mind, but that doesn’t mean he supports it.

“I understand there is a rational basis for all of this, and that if we move people into additional lanes that are paid for in part by the cost of tolls, they can make their own market-based decisions about what occasions are worth a little extra and what those occasions are,” he said.

Simitian’s voting record proves he has stayed the course in trying to eliminate extra fees for his constituents; he was in the minority of Bay Area officeholders who opposed the regional Measure 3 on the June 5 ballot. The measure, which passed, raises bridge tolls and funds construction of toll lanes, among other traffic mitigation efforts.

Simitian still views the tax as regressive because it won’t hurt the pocketbooks of the financially comfortable, but it could be consequential for many area residents who already have a hard time making ends meet.

Taking a toll on traffic

Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said the toll lanes are the most effective option the agency can offer at this time to address traffic congestion, which makes the fees that much more necessary.

Caltrans’ aim is to increase its “person throughput,” or the amount of carpoolers, not cars, circulating on 101. Adding a toll lane rather than a carpool lane is “the only way to make that happen,” Weiss said last week.

San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa challenged Caltrans’ justification for the toll road. The agency based its rationale on the environmental report conducted for the project, which contended that the only option to eradicate the Bay Area’s overwhelming traffic is toll lanes.

Canepa took to social media to reply to his constituents posting messages of support for him after he publicly voiced his opposition to the lanes. He thanked a Twitter user July 23 who recognized his “sanity on toll lanes,” which the tweeter said should be called “the Facebook lane.” Canepa tweeted back: “Carpool lanes are fine but #NoToll.”

The same day, Canepa acknowledged the tweet of a reporter who quoted him saying, “I’m not a rocket scientist, I’m just a supervisor, but if the goal is to move people and get them to carpool, then why not just do a carpool lane?”

Canepa added in his reply tweet that it’s time to discuss whether toll lanes are the right way to manage congestion on 101. He tagged Caltrans’ District 4 Twitter account in search of a response.

Weiss pointed to the “flexibility” of toll lanes over carpool lanes, noting that toll lanes accommodate vehicles for a small fee when traffic is light, while carpool lanes have extended hours when cars with only two or more people can drive in them.

The most common complaints Caltrans hears from commuters are that they can’t afford to pay the toll and they can’t find people to carpool with. Detractors would still benefit from the addition of toll lanes, Weiss said, as they would reduce the number of cars traveling in lanes they could still access.

The Caltrans-provided map for the SM 101 Managed Lanes project reveals that a new lane would be installed only along 101 between Interstate 380 in South San Francisco and San Antonio Road in Palo Alto. The lane would connect to Santa Clara County by transitioning the existing carpool lane from Menlo Park to Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View into a toll lane – meaning no extra lane installation on that stretch.

Spring construction

Why is a project in the works for so long suddenly drawing scrutiny from residents? It’s difficult for Caltrans to arouse the interest of busy residents until a project is right under their noses, Simitian concluded.

“Understandably, people lead busy lives and aren’t focused on highway improvements years away, but now they’re anxious,” he said.

Weiss said Caltrans has done its part to encourage the debate, opening a public comment period from November 2017 to January 2018, prior to revisions on the environmental report, which prompted an extension of the public comment window to Thursday.

Caltrans held three public meetings on the project and placed ads in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Mateo’s The Daily Journal and The Mercury News, Weiss said. He spoke with two television reporters himself to spread awareness of the project’s progress. No more public meetings will be scheduled at this time.

Caltrans expects construction to begin next spring, with an anticipated price tag of $534 million. The project likely will wrap up by early 2022.

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