East Bay commuter John Hamblin says $4 is a small price to pay for a speedy rush-hour commute on Interstate 680.
"I save time," said the San Ramon businessman, who forks over an electronic toll for the privilege of riding in Northern California's first toll lane on a 14-mile stretch from Pleasanton to Milpitas.
"It's also relaxing," Hamblin said. "You're not having to brake all the time for (traffic) backup. I think it would be great if there were more toll lanes."
The Bay Area's transportation commission agrees.
On Thursday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will ask a state panel for authority to extend the area's toll lane network by 290 miles. The proposal is the next step in MTC's plans to construct 570 miles of toll lanes on Bay Area freeways over the next two decades, at a cost of $1.6 billion to $6.8 billion. Some 266 miles of toll lanes have already been approved, but not yet built.
The lanes are free for use by carpools, but solo motorists pay a toll to use them. The toll, charged to FasTrak accounts, varies depending on time of day and miles traveled.
Critics, however, worry that the toll lanes, which are intended to ease congestion, actually could lead to greater auto use and more greenhouse gas pollution, and fail to serve low-income residents without cars.
Skeptics say the MTC has not provided assurances that the revenue from the lanes will be used to fund express buses to move public transit riders.
"We are talking about authorizing a $6 billion project, one of the largest transportation projects in the history of the Bay Area, yet many important questions remain unanswered," said John Knox White, project manger for Transform, an Oakland-based transportation advocacy group. "If we do it right, we can end up with a world-class transportation system. But the commission's current approach won't do that."
His and other groups are unhappy that MTC didn't hold public workshops on the proposed toll lane expansion before asking the California Transportation Commission to approve it.
The new application would authorize toll lanes on Interstate 80 through Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties; on Interstate 880 in Alameda County; I-680 in Solano and Contra Costa counties; and State Routes 92 and 84 in Alameda County. Other lanes in Santa Clara and Alameda counties already have been authorized.
One group of transportation experts examined MTC's expansion application and concluded that the network would increase greenhouse gases by enticing more motorists to drive.
"We find MTC's evaluation to be an overly optimistic portrayal of projected benefits that ignores climate and equity impacts," wrote the group headed by Deb Neimeir, a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Even MTC's own citizens advisory committee -- called the policy advisory council -- frowned on the expansion. The council voted 13-2 against the expansion application, citing concerns over increased greenhouse gases and uncertainties over the express buses.
The full commission's board, however, unanimously backed the expansion request, saying the toll lane network will be an effective congestion buster and that criticism of the plan is premature.
"The HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes move people quickly," said Adrienne Tissier, a San Mateo County supervisor who leads MTC.
The expanded toll lane network will save Bay Area drivers a combined 38 million travel hours annually over 35 years, commission planners estimated.
The MTC must secure expansion authority quickly because the California Transportation Commission loses its power to authorize expansions Dec. 31. After that, any expansions must be approved by the Legislature.
Toll lane backers say the lanes use road space more efficiently by letting solo drivers buy their way into the carpool lane -- moving cars out of the regular lanes.
The Bay Area doesn't have the room or money to build new freeways, yet the tolls voluntarily paid by drivers can fund the lane expansion, Tissier said.
Andrew Fremier, MTC's deputy executive director, said the toll lanes will reduce greenhouse gases by freeing vehicles from being stuck and idling in traffic.
"Vehicles are putting out far more pollution when stuck in traffic than when moving freely in a toll lane," he said.
Completing the network of lanes also will curb pollution by giving more drivers a timesaving incentive to carpool or take buses, transportation managers said. Carpool drivers and buses now cannot go too far without having to slow down when carpool lanes end. The proposed lane expansion will help close the gaps in existing carpool lanes, advocates said, and express bus service along the toll lanes will expand when the lanes are opened, as has occurred on toll lanes in San Diego County.
It remains unclear, however, when the early Bay Area toll lanes will make enough to pay for creating other toll lanes and fund express bus service.
Commission staff members have suggested that the agency concentrate first on building all the toll lanes so the connected network will attract users and revenue to pay for the buses.
Transform, the advocacy group, wants money set aside earlier for the express buses.
Meanwhile, the first toll lane is performing well after it opened Sept. 20, 2010, operators say.
Toll lane use grew from more than 1,300 vehicles per day in April to more than 1,800 users per day in October, said David Hyams, a toll lane spokesman. He predicts toll use will soar when the job market recovers and makes I-680 more congested.
Vehicles in the toll lane during rush hour average 66 mph, 9 mph faster than the 57 mph average in other lanes, Hyams added.
Hamblin, the San Ramon resident, uses the toll lane four times a month on business trips to San Jose. He pays about $4 on average -- close to the $3.50 average toll on the I-680 lane.
"When I'm driving 65 mph in the toll lane and traffic is jammed up in the other line," he said, "paying the toll is a bargain to me."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
The California Transportation Commission will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Sacramento Convention Center, 1300 J St., Room 306. Go to www.catc.ca.gov for details.
BAY AREA TOLL LANEs
High-occupancy toll lanes for carpools and solo drivers paying a toll.
Total miles proposed: 570
Convert existing carpool lanes to toll: 340 miles
Widen freeways to build new lanes: 210 miles
Operating gap: 20 miles on Interstate 880 considered impractical to open toll lane.
Existing toll lane: 14 miles on Sunol Grade along Interstate 680
Total cost: $1.6 billion to $6.8 billion, depending on freeway upgrades needed.
Schedule: Most lanes finished in 2025, with rest by 2030.
Funding sources: Road tolls to be supplemented with state and federal grants, bridge tolls and perhaps new or extended sales taxes.
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission