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There are FasTrak lanes in San Joaquin County’s future
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

The gas tax increase that’s been in place for 16 months as much as we moan and groan about it will not cover all pressing freeway and highway repair and expansion needs. Nor will it generate enough money to improve or extend the life of all existing city streets. And it certainly won’t produce enough money to help subsidize all the mass transit needed to help make a dent in congestion.

So how is the state and other entities such as councils of governments in charge of regional transportation needs in congested areas such as the Los Angeles Basin, San Diego, the Bay Area, Sacramento and even San Joaquin County going to come up with additional money?

The answer is simple. They’re going to use a voluntary tax collected via FasTrak technology.

Already 209 commuters heading to San Jose and the inner East Bay can opt to pay the voluntary tax if they use the FasTrak lanes on 14 miles of Interstate 580 between Livermore and Dublin to avoid sitting in the stop and go non-toll lanes between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Depending on congestion levels the cost to use the lane can range from 30 cents to $13 a crack. Such lanes can shave as much as 15 minutes off drive time in some parts of the Bay Area.

Within a decade there are projected to be more than 300 miles of such toll lanes in the Bay Area.

The revenue generated will recoup the cost of the toll lanes and then some. To put it in perspective, the new freeway lanes that are restricted to toll payers at various times of the day are generating money as opposed to freeway lanes that don’t. The revenue will go a long way to easing not just congestion but revenue shortfalls for transportation as well.

It is a matter of time before such tolls come to San Joaquin County. The carpool lanes constructed through north Stockton on Interstate 5 are part of a long range plan extending the high occupancy vehicle lanes all the way south to Interstate 205 south of the San Joaquin River.

The odds are when the fourth lanes are added to Interstate 205 from Interstate 5 through Tracy to the Alameda County line they will also be toll lanes as well. There’s a good chance the same may hold true when it is targeted to add a third lane in each direction on the 120 Bypass sometime after 2030.

Toll lanes as they are operated in California reduce not just the travel time of those paying to use the lanes but also those stuck in the slower moving lanes that decline to pay a tax premium to use state freeways.

Data from toll lanes on Interstate 680 through Fremont show those paying the premium tax travel on average 16 mph faster than those using the non-toll lanes. That said because enough drivers pay to use the less congested lanes, traffic on the other freeway lanes is moving 22 percent faster than before the toll lanes were put in place.

Granted as growth continues the remaining freeway lanes during commute hours will slip back into their previous congestion levels and then some. But at least those willing to pay extra are providing fees to help keep roads in shape or pay for the addition of more lanes.

They are more than a few who view this as a regressive tax on poor drivers in a state that prides itself on being progressive.

That is true, at least to a degree. Everybody driving a gas powered vehicle pays gas tax to help pay for roads. That tax is regressive given the poor that drive typically have older vehicles that are not as fuel efficient meaning the working poor will pay more per mile to fund roads. Someone driving a beat up Chevy Astro van is not only getting worse gas mileage than the driver of a new Chevy Suburban but based on gross vehicle weight they are committing less wear and tear to the pavement. That means per mile the poorer driver typically will pay more in roads taxes while causing less damage. Taxes don’t get much more regressive than that.

Toll lane taxes are optional. To avoid paying the taxes that are marketed as fees, don’t use the lane. It’s as simple as that.

The Dublin to Livermore toll lanes are free for vehicles that have one or more passengers during the time charges are in effect That way they are keeping true to the original intent of carpool lanes to ease congestion by reducing the number of solo drivers on the road.

Critics claim by converting carpool lanes into places where those solo drivers willing to pay a price can join vehicles with two or more riders that is somehow unfair to poorer motorists driving solo and creates an elite class of drivers.

Actually it is neither unfair nor is it elitist.

Toll lane charges are one of the few “taxes” that those better off can’t find a way to reduce their liability. If someone traveling solo on the Livermore-Dublin segment in both directions manages to consistently rack up the maximum daily combined charge of $26 for peak travel one time each way and can afford to pay $6,760 a year, let them. In the scheme of things they’re subsidizing the little guy driving the 1978 Datsun B-210 when it comes to funding roads.

One hundred percent toll roads are a different animal — to a degree. 

The only true toll roads in Northern California are the bridges across the bay. All vehicles pay the same toll.

Toll roads that are built in many parts of his country as true expressways are slammed because the poorer driver can ill afford to use them to cut down travel time. The alternatives that are in place for “free” tend to be significantly longer in distance and time to travel. As long as the toll road is paying for itself it doesn’t rise to the level of being wanton discrimination against poorer drivers.

Even congestion pricing to enter the streets of the congested business districts as is being proposed in Los Angeles and San Francisco isn’t too terribly regressive as a regular commuter would have to be able to afford hourly or monthly parking charges in order travel in a car to work in such areas. Not very many $15 an hour workers can tolerate a $30 daily charge to park their car.

If there are enough people willing to pay to use an extra lane on I-205 or even the 120 Bypass between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. it benefits everyone else who has no stomach to fork over extra money to drive either freeway given the added lane capacity will reduce congestion in the non-toll lanes or, at the very least, retard the growth of vehicle congestion.