Congestion Pricing in the San Francisco Bay Area

As the nation’s first appli­ca­tion of cor­don  pre­pares to launch at the end of , it’s impor­tant to note that con­ges­tion pric­ing is alive and well on many of the nation’s busiest high­ways.

The San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle pub­lished a full page arti­cle on April 29 on what it’s for­mer trans­porta­tion reporter, Michael Cabanat­u­an, cal­l’s “a primer on what you need to know about express lanes” in the -coun­ty San Fran­cis­co Bay Area.

“Express lanes are car­pool lanes that dri­vers with few­er than the req­ui­site of car­pool pas­sen­gers can buy their way into,” writes Cabanat­u­an in the first of 14 sec­tions to define this par­tic­u­lar form of road pric­ing. Inter­est­ing­ly, the term, “con­ges­tion pric­ing,” is nev­er used, but is defined in the fifth sec­tion, “How much does it cost to use an express lane?

The toll varies depend­ing on the amount of traf­fic in the reg­u­lar traf­fic lanes as well as the traf­fic speed in the express lanes. As traf­fic meters indi­cate con­ges­tion is wors­en­ing on a stretch of free­way, the toll ris­es; as con­ges­tion eas­es, the toll drops.

The min­i­mum toll on Bay Area express lanes is 50 cents for a trip that may range from less than a mile to a cou­ple of miles. There is, at least in the­o­ry, no max­i­mum toll.

Not ‘just’ a toll lane

Rather than using the Fed­er­al Admin­is­tra­tion term, High-Occu­pan­cy Toll (HOT) Lanes, Cabanat­u­an opt­ed for ‘hybrid toll-car­pool lanes.’

Car­pool­ers get in for free or at a dis­count­ed rate — though if they use the express lanes, they need to have a Fas­Trak Flex transpon­der. This sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion elec­tron­ic toll tag includes a switch for dri­vers to indi­cate the num­ber of occu­pants in their vehi­cle: one, two, or three or more. 

Why have express lanes?

Express lanes are an off­shoot of car­pool lanes, which lim­it access to those who car­pool. “The idea behind express lanes is to improve the per­for­mance of a free­way by mak­ing car­pool lanes per­form more effi­cient­ly by car­ry­ing more vehi­cles, accord­ing to John Good­win, spokesper­son for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion ,” Cabanat­u­an. “This is done by sell­ing ‘extra’ room in the lanes to peo­ple will­ing to pay a toll.”


Sim­i­lar to pub­lic tran­sit in the 9‑county Bay Area, there is no one sin­gle author­i­ty in charge.

Four dif­fer­ent agen­cies — the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion, the San­ta Clara Val­ley Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty, the Alame­da Coun­ty Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion and the San Coun­ty Express Lanes Pow­ers Author­i­ty — con­trol and oper­ate dif­fer­ent express lanes, but all have agreed to the com­mon hours.

The equity issue

Cabanat­u­an saves for last what arguably is the most-voiced objec­tion to what were once called ‘Lexus lanes.’ Melanie Cur­ry, edi­tor of Streets­blog Cal­i­for­nia, explains the ori­gin of that term in an Octo­ber 2020 arti­cle, “His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tive on Los Ange­les’ Traf­fic Con­ges­tion Fight.”

One of the first appli­ca­tions of con­ges­tion pric­ing was on the 91 Express Lanes. Argu­ments for and against these lanes spanned the polit­i­cal spec­trum, with the notion of pri­vate com­pa­nies build­ing and oper­at­ing toll lanes appeal­ing to con­ser­v­a­tives. Mean­while, they were denounced as “Lexus Lanes” by Sen­a­tor Tom Hay­den, whose pol­i­tics were decid­ed­ly on the progressive/radical end of the spec­trum. He claimed that they were unfair to peo­ple who could­n’t afford them.

Extent of express lane network in the Bay Area

“About 215 lane-miles of free­ways are col­lect­ing tolls in the Bay Area Express Lane net­work,” notes Cabanat­u­an. “Anoth­er rough­ly 45 lane-miles are either under con­struc­tion or set for con­ver­sion from tra­di­tion­al car­pool to express lanes.”

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