Time is money in Bay Area HOT lanes

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(San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) How much do you value your time? That’s the question drivers will have to ask themselves if they hit heavy traffic on I-680 next week: do they want to wait it out, for free, or zip into an open lane that might cost $6 or more to use? Beginning next Monday, a 14-mile stretch of I-680 between Sunol and Milpitas will have a new traffic lane that accepts both carpools (which ride free) and single drivers (who will have to pay).

The I-680 project is a pilot for what officials say will someday be an 800-mile network of high-occupancy/toll lanes (HOT lanes) around the Bay. The lanes are new to this area, but they’ve been around for years in several cities around the country; the first such lanes opened in 1995 down in Orange County. Though there’s some regional variation to how they work, HOT lanes are based on the idea that placing a value on the ability to avoid congestion lightens the traffic load for everybody. Those who are willing to pay, do, but enough people don’t that traffic in the lane always moves freely.

The pay-to-play structure means that the lanes are often derided as “Lexus Lanes” that make things a little cushier for the wealthy while unfairly penalizing the poor. Unfortunately, there’s not much empirical research on whether this is true, and what studies there have been show conflicting results.

The most recent analysis I could track down – of HOT lanes in the Minneapolis area – found that in general, higher-income drivers used the lanes most often and derived the most benefits, but that lower-income drivers were just as likely to use them when they really needed the time savings.

That idea of need – that some commitments are worth more money than others – is what drives HOT lanes’ success, and what makes sorting out the pricing, in the words of Frank Furger of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, “more of an art than a science.” Is being on time to a meeting worth more or less than being on time to your child’s soccer game? When you’re making the decision on the spot, does it matter? “What we believe to be the value of time could change dramatically on a day-to-day basis,” says Furger, whose agency is overseeing the I-680 project. As of Monday, drivers on that stretch are likely to learn just what is worth paying for.