As the Bay Area embarks on a 90-mile expansion of toll lanes over the next three years, the early results are encouraging to those who think this is one of the quickest ways to beat the region's growing traffic woes.
At the toll lanes on Interstate 880 and Highway 237, which opened a year ago Wednesday, revenue is more than 50 percent above projections.
And the cash flowing in on southbound I-680 down the Sunol Grade is also on the increase, reversing a disappointing start three years ago, when use was low and the lane often appeared empty.
Extra funds from the toll lanes will likely be earmarked to build more, to fund buses that can use them or extend carpool lanes where needed.
"The upward trend is typical," said Bob Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, who has followed express lane use in a dozen areas across the country and reviewed the Bay Area data. "So this looks like a reasonably good performance."
The 237-880 express lanes have generated $905,042 in revenue in their first year, well above the $592,000 that was projected. Some 21 percent of motorists in the carpool lane are solo drivers willing to pay a toll. That's up from 17 percent in the first weeks.
The toll has varied from 30 cents to $5-plus, depending on congestion levels, with an average price of $1.62.
The I-680 express lane took in $800,050 from July through January, higher than the $612,500 forecast. And 2,072 solo drivers used the diamond lane in January, compared with 1,657 in the same month a year earlier. The average peak toll is $2.45.
So far, these are the only locations in the Bay Area where solo drivers can buy their way into the carpool lane for a faster commute. But by 2015, carpool lanes on I-80 before the Bay Bridge, I-580 through the Livermore Valley, I-680 in Contra Costa County and I-880 south of San Leandro could join the list, as well as the entry points to the San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridge toll plazas from the Nimitz Freeway.
And the Valley Transportation Authority is planning to add more express lanes on 237 through Sunnyvale over the next three years and on almost the entire length of highways 85 and 101 in the South Bay by 2018.
The VTA says 237-880 toll users are saving five to 20 minutes, compared to those driving in the non-carpool lanes during peak commute periods. Travel time for commuters in other lanes has also improved by upward of seven minutes.
The early returns mean it's full steam ahead to expand the system, with no thought of pulling back on approved plans as long as funding can be secured, says John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Complaints from drivers originally upset about the new toll lanes also appear to have eased. Where initially many said the changes led to more lane shifting and congestion, that apparently is not as much of a concern as drivers have gotten accustomed to the new alignment.
"I use the lanes pretty much every day," said Jonathan Quist, an IT contract worker from Pleasanton. "In the morning, it shortens my commute by 20 to 30 minutes. ... I get paid by the hour, and paying the toll is much less expensive than losing a half-hour of pay."
The heaviest toll-lane usage is between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., with over 30 percent of users being solo drivers paying the toll.
Not all gripes have been resolved. Diana Shull of Milpitas hates the changes at 237-880 because she cannot get into the carpool lane from Calaveras Boulevard. Entry and exit locations are limited to a handful of areas on express lanes.
"Getting out of Milpitas in the morning is awful," she said. "Last Wednesday I had to go to Los Altos at 10 a.m. It took an extra 15 minutes for what should have been a 20-minute ride.
"Oh, but VTA is making money. Never mind the wasted gas or frayed tempers. Do I sound bitter?"
But the biggest gripe is drivers who illegally cross the double white lines that set off the express lanes from the rest of the road.
"I see so many people royally violating carpool restrictions, especially in evenings," said Ninad Pimparkar of Fremont, a carpooler. "I keep my distance from the guy in front in the carpool lane to avoid braking often and for safety, only to see many people crossing the double white line just in front of me."
Planners felt that many solo motorists would use the 237-880 toll lanes, as that interchange is one of the Bay Area's most congested spots and handles about 300,000 vehicles a day -- or used to.
John Ristow, who runs the VTA's highway program, says there has been about a 10 percent increase in traffic over the past year, and that's a major reason why toll revenue is so much higher than expected.
"It doesn't take much to bring everything to a crawl," he said. "The economy is booming here and we're exceeding expectations. There's pretty good evidence that people are willing to pay to use these lanes."
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.