The HOT Lane: San Francisco Bay Area MTC moves forward with congestion pricing

The MTC’s Plan
On Wednesday the MTC of the San Francisco Bay Area boldly added an 800 mile high-occupancy toll, or HOT lane, network to its 25-year regional plan. These new lanes act as High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) (a.k.a. carpool) lanes but when there is extra capacity it is sold using an electronic toll. Traffic always keeps moving in the HOT lane because the lane uses congestion pricing: as more users begin to use the lane the toll rate automatically rises to deter more cars from using the lane before the decelerating effects of congestion set in. The first phase of this $3.7 billion project will install FasTrak electronic toll collection sensors on the entire 400-mile HOV lane network already in place in the San Francisco Bay Area. This will effectively convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes. Subsequent phases will widen freeways to makes space for new HOT lanes rather than convert mixed flow lanes to HOT lanes.


Good for Transit? – Yes.
Besides having a really a sleek acronym, HOT lanes are a rather attractive idea. The MTC claims that the funds raised from the tolls will help improve the HOV network (now be called the HOT lane network) and that this will reduce congestion and emissions, and provide “a reliable travel option for express bus and carpools.” While, the MTC is somewhat amiss to claim the plan will “reduce” emissions, these new lanes do help transit gain a strategic edge over the automobile: In a way these lanes act as a kind of transit-first guideway because even when there is congestion on the mixed-flow lanes, and people really want to use the HOT lanes, the prices of the HOT lane will rise deterring automobile drivers but never the buses that will be whisking by parked cars on the freeways.


This might sound great, but it’s not the primary way the HOT lane network will support transit. Why? Rail. Take a look at the MTC’s Regional Rail Plan released last September and compare it to the Regional Hot-Lane Network announced today – there are clear similarities: these rail corridors parallel and compliment the freeway system. This is no coincidence – these corridors were designed to work as a transportation system that breaks the funding divide between roads and transit: the MTC envisions the HOT lane networking partially funding their nearly $50 billion rail proposal (see page 25).


Building more freeways is not the right way forward, but it’s (somewhat) inevitable for the time being. At the very least HOT Lanes provide a way to recoup the costs of, and even earn a profit from, freeway expansions. Transportation projects can earn money – the bridges in the Bay area alone earn over $400 million per year. If the profits from HOV lanes are used to put transportation on the fast track then they’re an excellent idea.


What’s Next?

There are gaps in the MTC’s HOT lane network, mainly either in San Francisco or directly connected to it. This is due to the high cost and infeasibility of adding lanes to these roads and bridges. Thus, the only way to expedite any sort of HOT lane network on these sections of roadway is to convert existing mixed-use lanes to HOT lanes. This has been studied, but it isn’t being done because of the experience that Santa Monica had in ‘taking away’ mixed flow lanes for use as HOV lanes.


Although the conversion of lanes in Santa Monica initially failed to reduce congestion and lawsuits were filed, by the time the lanes were converted back to mixed flow lanes, the HOV lanes had begun to work – people had switched to carpooling and taking the bus, it just took time. While this website promotes transit, there’s nothing wrong with getting freeway traffic to flow again. Let’s hope the MTC’s project is a success because if it is it may open the door to converting mixed-flow lanes to HOT lanes. Not only could this create a huge windfall for transit it would help avoid the tragedy of the commons on our freeways – a situation where nobody can get anywhere at all.






© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
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6 Responses to “The HOT Lane: San Francisco Bay Area MTC moves forward with congestion pricing”


  1. 1 anonymouse April 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

    I think you’re wrong. This measure is going to be bad for transit: it’s a set of highway widenings that directly compete with the transit network, and the money raised from HOT lanes is going to be miniscule, if it even manages to cover the cost of construction (as experience with the SR-91 lanes shows). Why not just hand 800 million to Caltrain to build their electrification, 400 million to SMART, the rest to whatever other rail projects are being planned (DTEV? Geary Subway?), and forget the freeway widenings. They’re the wrong way forward, and only as inevitable as the MTC makes them.

    • 2 switchingmodes April 25, 2009 at 11:27 am

      I think your comment is short sighted. Perhaps I should have made this clear in the post, but the money from HOT lanes will be used for the operational costs of transit. SMART and CalTrain will be funded according to MTC Resolution 3434, but the real problem is operational costs – the HOT lanes provide an alternative to relying on gas and sales taxes to ensure transit operations. I don’t see this as competing with transit but rather complementing it.SR-91 was, in my opinion, a success. It was controversial because of the non-compete clause that prevented the state from expanding the freeway (this possibly being a good thing) the MTC is not pursuing PPPs on this project.It’s realistic that the 800 mile network will increase toll revenues by 50% in the Bay Area. This is $200 million a year that will go primarily to transit, and that’s a good thing. HOWEVER: if I had it may way the HOT lane network would involve ONLY converting HOV and mixed flow lanes and NOT new lanes. But being obstinate on this issue can only set transit back for the time being.

      • 3 anonymouse April 25, 2009 at 1:24 pm

        But the SR-91 lanes never re-paid their cost of construction and had to be bailed out by the county. It’s unlikely that the HOT lanes will ever cover the cost of their construction, so why not just hand the money over to transit right now? Put it in a bank and call it the transit operations trust fund, or whatever. And don’t forget that by building these competing lanes, you’re cutting into transit ridership and making their deficits worse. I say we need to end this stupidity now: no more freeway widenings, period.

  2. 4 switchingmodes April 25, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    You’re not correct about that. Yes, the toll lanes were bought back at a cost of $200 million, but that was because the freeway was expanded which violated the non-compete clause the toll agency has signed with transportation authority. IN NO WAY WAS SR-91 A BAILOUT.

    Also, these “Lexus Lanes” don’t compete with transit. I don’t see too many people who can afford these lanes – people who own a Lexus – using transit. Additionally, buses can and will use these lanes. Besides, MOST of these lanes, and ALL of the HOT lanes in the first phase are existing HOV lanes have extra capacity.

    It’s sad that we have to have this kind of ‘bake-sale’ for transit, but we do. Transit needs it. And if it takes someone in a Lexus who is willing to pay to get to work faster for transit to get its’ day, then I’m OK with that.

  3. 5 anonymouse April 25, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    If we’re talking about $3.7 billion, then they’re not just putting in tolls on existing lanes. And if they’re building new lanes, even if they are just for lexuses, those lexuses are almost certainly coming from the existing lanes, which means more capacity for people to switch from transit to driving.


  1. 1 Berkeley Professor says HOT lanes will loose money and infuriate drivers, but he overlooks his own discoveries « SwitchingModes.com Trackback on May 12, 2009 at 5:05 pm

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