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Q&A: VTA's New Hwy 85 Express Lane by 2016

VTA begins discussion with local residents and elected officials meeting about ambitious project.

Promising faster, reliable travel and increased efficiency, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority plans to add an express lane to Highway 85.

The freeway was built in two phases: the northern half was built in the 1960s, and runs 5.7 miles from Stevens Creek Boulevard near Interstate 280 to its northern end at U.S. 101 in Mountain View.

The second half was opened in 1994 and runs 18.5 miles from U.S. 101 in southern San Jose to Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino. Its opening was heralded as a boon to commuters from Los Gatos, Saratoga and Almaden Valley, who had previously clogged major streets such as Blossom Hill Road and Saratoga Avenue while commuting north to high-tech firms up the Peninsula.

So, what’s the difference between a HOT lane and an express lane? And, who’s going to pay for this project?

We asked VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress these and other questions regarding the Express Lane project:

Patch: What is the difference between HOV, HOT and express lanes?

Brandi Childress: HOV stands for High Occupancy Vehicle, or carpool lane basically. Vehicles with two or more, three or more in some areas are allowed to use this lane for free, bypassing traffic in congested mixed-use lanes. 

Express lanes (also known as High Occupancy Toll or “HOT” Lanes) allow solo drivers the option to use the HOV, or carpool lanes for a fee. All eligible carpools, or carpool vehicles, including clean-air vehicles with applicable decals, continue to use the lanes free of charge. 

Fees from solo drivers are collected electronically using FasTrak electronic toll collection technology already used on San Francisco Bay Area Bridges and elsewhere in California. Tolls are based on the level of congestion and are adjusted to maintain a free flow of traffic. 

Express Lanes are NOT toll roads.  On a traditional toll road all users pay a toll. With express lanes, only solo drivers who choose to use the lane will pay a toll.

Patch: How is this project being funded?

Childress: VTA is actively seeking funds to implement the project. A federal grant and local money are funding the current environmental clearance phase.

Patch: What is the cost to residents?

Childress: If you are asking about costs related to the project, the answer is there is no cost to residents. Indirectly, the local sales tax revenue generated in Santa Clara County helps to fund capital improvements. Regarding the costs to use the Express Lanes, the cost would only be for solo drivers who choose to pay when they find it necessary or beneficial to do so. The toll is a user fee, which is dynamically priced, based on the level of congestion on the roadway. The more the congestion, the higher the fee. The typical toll rates for the 237 Express Lanes have ranged between $1 to $5.

Patch: How bad is traffic on Highway 85?

Childress: Major segments of Highway 85 are currently severely congested (and receive a poor rating) during the peak periods with stop-and-go conditions, whereas the carpool lane operates at speeds greater than 45 mph and has existing capacity for more users.

Patch: Where are the worst traffic spots on Highway 85?

Childress: The segments where heavy congestion occurs are:

  • During the a.m. peak period—Almaden Expressway and Camden Avenue; Winchester Boulevard and Saratoga Avenue; De-Anza Boulevard and SR 237.
  • During the p.m. peak period—Moffett Boulevard and Fremont Avenue; Stevens Creek Boulevard and Saratoga Avenue; SR 17 and Union Avenue; SR 87 and Santa Teresa Boulevard.

Patch: How much is the Express Lane expected to improve traffic congestion?

Childress: Express Lanes are expected to improve overall congestion and corridor travel time by 25 percent during the peak commute periods. This is achieved by allowing toll paying, solo drivers to use the additional capacity that is in the carpool lanes, helping to maximize the efficiency of existing infrastructure. 

Patch: What needs to be done to change the existing carpool lane into an Express Lane?

Childress: New roadway striping will delineate express lanes from general purpose lanes with a 2-foot wide buffer zone featuring double solid white lines except at specific entry and exit points. Each entry and exit point would be equipped with overhead electronic signs and a FasTrak electronic toll collection system. Like any construction project, there will be roadway work that will result in closures of lanes but this is usually done at night so that the impacts to the traveling public are minimized.  Overall, express lane facilities are being introduced on Highway 85 and U.S. 101 because there is no more room to expand these roadways, i.e. improvement projects that have far greater construction impacts and take longer to implement compared to essentially reconfiguring the existing roadway to accommodate express lanes.   

Patch: Does a carpool have to have a FasTrak device to use it?

Childress: FasTrak is the name of the electronic toll collection system that allows you to prepay your tolls, eliminating the need to stop at a tollbooth. Solo drivers choosing to utilize the express lanes will need a FasTrak transponder for their vehicle. If you are carpooling and you have a FasTrak transponder, make sure to place your transponder in the Mylar bag that is provided to prevent the antenna from reading and deducting a toll. Carpools do not have to have a FasTrak transponder, only if the driver decides to go solo through the express lane facility.

Patch: Will the Express Lane run the entire length of Highway 85 from Mountain View to South San Jose’s intersection with Highway 101?

Childress: In short, yes! Here are the details: The SR 85 express lanes project is within the central corridor of the Silicon Valley Express Lanes Program being implemented by the VTA. This project will convert approximately 27 miles of existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lanes to express lanes.

The project will add a second HOV express lane between SR 87 and I-280. The project limits are between U.S. 101 in Mountain View and Bailey Avenue on U.S. 101 in south San Jose. The project will also convert the existing HOV direct connector in south San Jose, from U.S. 101 to SR 85, to an express connector.

SR 85 Express Lanes access points will accommodate traffic from I-280, SR 17, SR 87, SR 237, U.S. 101, and potentially county expressways and other major arterials. SR 85 connects commuters from Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Cupertino, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Mountain View and San Jose to the technology and professional service industries in Santa Clara County.

  1. Express lanes are separated from regular lanes by a double white painted buffer.
  2. Electronic signs display the current toll for solo drivers with FasTrak. Tolls will vary based on the level of congestion in the express lanes and will be adjusted to maintain free-flowing traffic.
  3. An overhead antenna reads a FasTrak transponder and the correct toll is automatically deducted prepaid FasTrak accounts: No toll booths, no slowing.

Patch: Have you had any negative public response to adding these Express Lanes?

Childress: Express lanes around the country have proven very popular with solo drivers, transit users and carpoolers alike and from all income levels and walks of life because they provide people with a choice for reliable travel if they want or need it. Here in the Bay Area, drivers are increasingly experiencing the benefits from this option available to them on southbound 680 in Alameda County and the 237 Express Lane in Santa Clara County (Milpitas).  Since the facilities opening in March 2012, we have seen increased usage from month to month, not only by solo drivers but by carpoolers as well. 

Patch: What is the timeline for the Highway 85 Express Lane project?

Spring 2013:            Project approval and environmental documents complete

Late 2013:               Begin final design

Spring 2016:            Open express lanes for service

Commuters can sign up for email updates to stay apprised of scheduled meetings and project updates at www.vta.org.

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Srihari Yamanoor January 15, 2013 at 03:36 AM
So are you guys adding new lanes, or are you just sprinkling holy water on existing carpool lanes and restricting when we can get in and out of the carpool lanes in off-peak hours? If it is the latter, I am sure you will see plenty of opposition. And no, the HOV/HOT and all other fancy abbreviations have not done much to 680 traffic. We need more physical lanes, not new age "believe in it and pay up" crap.
Claudia Cruz January 15, 2013 at 07:45 AM
Srihari, thanks for the comment. I'll make sure that Brandi Childress see this and responds. My suspicion is that the Express Lanes will occupy the HOV lanes.
Brandi Childress - VTA Spokeslady January 15, 2013 at 09:50 PM
The Silicon Valley Express Lanes Program will convert carpool lanes along SR 85 (and US 101) into express lane facilities, maximizing the efficiency of existing infrastructure and underutilized lanes. The environmental document is clearing two express lanes in each direction of SR 85 between I-280 and SR 87 (within existing right-of-way.) Two lanes are ideal where there are higher levels of congestion providing additional capacity while also improving operational movements in and out of express lanes, or around slow-moving vehicles. SR 237 Express Lanes do not restrict carpool use in off-peak hours and that is expected to remain the same for SR 85 and US 101 corridors.

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