The long slog for commuters traveling from Walnut Creek to San Ramon could get shorter -- for a price.
The first toll lanes in Contra Costa County are expected to open on Interstate 680 by mid-2016, part of a major expansion of a pay-to-drive network around the Bay Area.
The $45 million project, which is in the design stage, will create 23 miles of FasTrak express lanes that solo drivers can pay to use -- as long as its traffic is moving at least 45 mph. Construction should begin at the start of 2015, said John Goodwin, a Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman.
The system would use the same FasTrak technology used on Bay Area bridges, with electronic toll tags that charge fees but require no stopping at toll booths. The toll lanes -- which will be free for carpoolers, motorcycles and electric vehicles -- will run on southbound I-680 from Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek to Alcosta Boulevard in San Ramon, and on northbound I-680 from Alcosta to Livorna Road in Alamo.
"It's a time-tested, effective way for motorists to buy congestion insurance," Goodwin said.
The idea is exciting for some drivers.
Edward Aquitania, a San Francisco resident who commutes to San Ramon five days a week for work, says he would welcome the chance to buy in.
"I'm all for it. Time is money," he said. "If I can cut that time in a half by paying to use a carpool lane, it would be worth it. That would be $2 well-spent."
Known as HOT lanes, for high-occupancy toll lanes, these fast lanes are not new around the country, but they are relatively new in the Bay Area. Two such expressway corridors exist on I-680 south along the Sunol Grade and along Highway 237 and Interstate 880 in Santa Clara County.
Tolls charged can fluctuate minute by minute -- from 50 cents to $1.25 or more -- depending on existing traffic flows, Goodwin said. If the HOT lane gets crowded, they can just read "carpool only." New switchable electronic toll tags would indicate if the car has a solo driver or a carpooler, and electronic readers would automatically charge tolls to accounts.
"It's all a choice, and there's nothing coercive about it," Goodwin said. "So it's not taking anything away from drivers -- simply offering more options."
HOT lanes are disparaged by some as "Lexus lanes" for wealthy travelers, but Goodwin said the typical FasTrak lane customer uses it once or twice or month, "when they absolutely have to be there on time."
The I-680 project is proceeding quickly because it is relatively inexpensive, with no need to build new lanes. Instead, existing HOV lanes would be converted with the installation of FasTrak toll tag readers, signs, traffic-monitoring video cameras, and observation areas for the California Highway Patrol to monitor lanes.
Tolls collected there will help pay for regional expansion of FasTrak lanes. The long-term plan is for more than 500 miles of HOT lanes to be built in the region over the next 20 years.
Despite the projections for shorter commute times in FasTrak lanes, some remain unconvinced.
Don Yakulis, a San Ramon resident who works in San Mateo, said he thinks more studies should be done on the current toll lanes to see where revenue is going and if they are actually improving traffic as promised.
He says he has occasionally uses the Sunol Grade toll lanes, but "I don't see the improvement."
Dave Hudson, a San Ramon city councilman and longtime board member of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority, said he thinks the project will help alleviate some of the bottlenecks on that corridor, though it alone cannot fix the problem. Stepped-up use and availability of Rideshare, bikeshares and other carpooling programs and carpooling apps and other technologies also are needed, he said.
Some commuters have their own reasons for liking the FasTrak lane idea.
Nick Olson, a Walnut Creek resident who commutes to downtown San Jose for work, said he not only carpools with other drivers, but he specifically bought a plug-in Prius to access HOV lanes, since traffic often can be "at a standstill" from San Ramon to Walnut Creek.
"But I see people cheating it all the time, every day," he said. Solo drivers often will hop into the HOV lane to avoid slower moving lanes, he said: "And I'd like to see the toll lanes discourage that."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.
Estimated average commute time, at minimum speeds of 45 mph, in toll lanes:
-- Northbound a.m., 14.5 minutes
-- Southbound a.m., 16 minutes
-- Northbound p.m., 14.5 minutes
-- Southbound p.m., 16 minutes
Estimated average commute time in nontoll lanes, without the project in 2012 vs. with the project in 2016:
-- Northbound a.m.: 21.7 minutes (without project); 20 minutes (with project)
-- Southbound a.m.: 25.7 minutes (without project); 22.7 minutes (with project)
-- Northbound p.m.: 43.4 minutes (without project); 42.6 minutes (with project)
-- Southbound p.m.: 25.2 minutes (without project); 18.6 minutes (with project)
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission
Toll lanes' effect during peak hours on I-680 from San Ramon to Walnut Creek, if the project opened in 2015:
-- Northbound a.m.: Speeds would improve from 53 mph to 58 mph, a 9 percent increase.
-- Southbound a.m.: Speeds would improve from 45 mph to 51 mph, a 13 percent increase.
-- Northbound p.m.: Speeds remain the same at 27 mph.
-- Southbound p.m.: Speeds would improve from 46 mph to 62 mph, a 35 percent increase.
Source: Contra Costa Transportation Authority