Want to beat Bay Area traffic? Get ready to pay. Express tolls are surging
Bay Area freeway commuters are learning quickly what the “surge” means in surge toll pricing.
After a pandemic slumber that kept commutes quiet and demand and toll costs for express lanes low, freeways are clogged once more.
Now prices are rising and tempers are flaring over the growing network of express lanes crisscrossing the region in the Bay Area as motorists contend with a slew of new toll lanes on Interstates 880 and 680, and Highway 101. Drivers are finding that the luxury of cruising past backups in the free lanes is often costing more than double what it did in 2020.
On northbound I-880, toll costs are up over 100% topping out at an average of $8.30 for the evening commute. Contra Costa drivers are facing a nearly six-fold increase in costs since a 12-mile extension of toll lanes on southbound I-680 between Martinez and Dublin was rolled out in August.
Meanwhile, drivers stuck in traffic on the other lanes of the freeway are growing furious, with increasing reports of solo drivers posing as carpoolers to get a free pass in the fast lane.
The express lanes are part of a 130-mile network on course to expand to more than 500 miles in the coming decades. They promise solo drivers a more reliable commute for a price that fluctuates depending on the flow of traffic. Drivers who — using the honor system — set their FasTrak transponder to two or more passengers can jet along most express lanes for free. On I-680 you only need one passenger.
But figuring the costs of toll lanes can be dizzying for commuters. Unlike toll bridges, express lanes use variable prices that spike during peak congestion hours.
For some drivers looking to fly by nightmarish backups, the costs have topped $17 on I-680, peaked at about $22 for the entire length of Highway 101 from Sunnyvale to Redwood City, and reached as high as $30 on I-880.
Drivers like Susan Hinton resort to mental arithmetic and Google maps to calculate how much time they are actually saving by taking the Highway 101 express lane.
“I do go past a lot of cars and psychologically that always feels great,” said Hinton, who drives from Sunnyvale to San Carlos for a volunteering job. “But by the time I got where I was going, I realized that I saved an entire minute: Was it worth it? I don’t know.”
The Highway 101 express lane is the newest addition to the network, spanning Sunnyvale to Redwood City. It’s not always pricey: Since opening in February, drivers have paid an average of $3 to $5 to ride the entire system.
In recent months, Katherine Tolentino has begrudgingly watched drivers zip by as her commute is upended by the Highway 101 express lane.
“Any time we’re on the freeway, we’re just sitting there stewing about these stupid toll lanes,” said Tolentino. “I don’t take those lanes because I’m so resentful about them.”
While many drivers are paying more, there is also a growing share of motorists claiming to carpool on I-880 and Highway 101. But enforcement isn’t keeping up with scofflaws.
According to the latest data, over a third of vehicles in the I-880 express lanes in the fall of 2021 claimed to be carrying three people. Meanwhile, the California Highway Patrol, which is tasked with enforcing express lane rules, stopped only about 0.06% of the 3.9 million trips made during the period. Only 547 drivers got tickets.
“I think people are lying their heads off,” said Hinton, referring to the 20% of drivers currently claiming to have three people in their cars on Highway 101.
John Goodwin, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the majority of the Bay Area express lanes, acknowledges the system isn’t perfect.
“There is an honor system that is at work here,” he said. “The CHP cannot be everywhere all at once.”
So where is the money that is being pinged from your FasTrak receiver and sent into government coffers going? The answer is that the vast majority goes toward operating and maintaining the current lanes or building more FasTrak lanes.
For the 101 lanes, the largest expenses are consultants and maintenance, while some revenue – about 6% – is being channeled back to San Mateo County residents in the form of pre-paid FasTrak responders and Clipper cards to low-income residents.
Frustrated motorists like Tolentino just see it as another pain of the Bay Area commute.
“It’s like gas is $6 and nobody lives where they work and how much are they going to take?” she said. “I’m just so resentful.”