Under new rules seeking to reduce diamond lane cheating, carpoolers in much of the Bay Area will likely be required to get a FasTrak transponder to drive in toll lanes.
Legislation implementing this rule for Alameda County was signed into law Tuesday, making FasTrak mandatory for anyone wanting to use the toll lane on southbound I-680 or on upcoming toll lanes on I-580.
Pending legislation would expand the program to Santa Clara County, and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has endorsed the idea and is expected to adopt it.
The new requirement represents a major change for carpoolers throughout the Bay Area, as 550 miles of toll lanes, also known as express lanes, are in the planning stages across the region. The lanes are free for carpoolers and motorcyclists, but solo drivers with a FasTrak device can use them for a fee.
The change will be possible with the introduction of switchable FasTrak transponders, in which a driver flips a switch to indicate whether there is one or two or more people inside.
These devices are now used in Southern California and will be available in the Bay Area next spring. Drivers who have FasTrak transponders now will need to trade them in for the new ones when they are available.
The new law takes effect Jan. 1, affecting drivers who use the I-680 toll lane, but the I-580 toll lane won't open until later in 2015.
The new rules could be a hassle for some carpoolers, who currently don't need FasTrak and can simply merge into the diamond lane.
"I do not think this is a good idea," said Charles Ferguson, of Fremont, who has one transponder and shares it among three family cars. "Since we often use carpool lanes, this law would force us to have three transponders, one in each car with cash loaded on each one.
"The idea is ridiculous, unsafe and creates unnecessary bureaucracy," he said.
But the idea has supporters. Rob Schneyer, of Santa Clara, says the CHP presence on Highway 237 is very thin and needs beefing up. He drives a Nissan Leaf and is frequently crowded by carpool cheaters.
"They are not enforcing the express lane rules," he said. "Should I have to forgo my rights to the HOV lane simply because others want to go faster than the limit?"
The program is already in use on Route 91 in Orange County and interstates 10 and 110 in Los Angeles, and it's being considered on I-5 and I-15 in San Diego.
Officials who have studied the issue say enforcement is important because drivers who either pay the toll or appropriately access the lane by carpooling get very frustrated when they see cheaters who use the lane illegally.
Officials in Los Angeles say their violation rate fell to as low as 10 percent from the 20 to 25 percent cheating rate in toll lanes that do not require transponders for carpoolers.
The new switchable transponders make it easier for the CHP to eyeball cheaters and collect tolls, say Southern California officials. A light will go off along the freeway if someone doesn't have the device, and the fear of getting caught makes scofflaws more likely to follow the rules.
"What L.A. found is that carpool violations went down significantly, increasing room for those who are in the lane legally," said Tess Lengyel, the deputy director of planning and policy for the Alameda County Transportation Commission.
Yet 30 percent of carpoolers say they would not continue to carpool with the transponder requirement for privacy reasons, fearing it would allow the government to track their movement and location. Others are distrustful of or uncomfortable with technology in general.
But backers of the new law say concerns that 3 out of 10 carpoolers would no longer share a ride to work are overblown.
"There are few if any worries of this leading to a decline in the number of legitimate carpools," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland. "It may lead to a decline in express lane cheating, however. That would be a good thing."
It costs $25 to set up a FasTrak account, and tolls for noncarpoolers can range from a few cents at nonpeak driving times to as much as $7 when the freeway is crowded.
This much is certain: FasTrak use is surging in the Bay Area, from 183,820 transpondera in 2001 to 2.67 million this year. And when the new law takes effect, as express lanes expand and traffic delays increase, the scramble to join FasTrak will mount.
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.
Current EXPRESS LANES
I-680 southbound along the Sunol Grade
I-880 at Highway 237 interchange
Toll areas at Bay Area bridges
COMING in 2015
I-580 from Hacienda Drive in Pleasanton to Greenville Road in Livermore eastbound and Greenville Road to San Ramon Road/Foothill Road in Dublin westbound
I-80 between Red Top Road and Air Base Parkway.
I-680 between Alcosta Road and Livorna Road.
I-880 between Marina/Lewelling and Dixon Landing Road
Bay Bridge westbound approach
San Mateo Bridge westbound approach
Dumbarton Bridge westbound approach
Highway 85 from Highway 101 in Morgan Hill to 101 in Mountain View
Highway 101 from Highway 85 in South San Jose to Whipple Avenue in Redwood City
Highway 237 from I-880 to Highway 101
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission