With jam-packed freeways an all-too-common roadblock for many drivers in the area, the Tri-Valley is on track to soon find itself nearly surrounded by one of regional traffic officials' go-to strategies for congestion relief.
Toll express lanes, an alternative to traditional carpool lanes, continue to be built along both directions of Interstate 580 through Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore.
The estimated $55 million project recently ran into a delay, pushing the completion date into next year -- meaning the lanes won't be open in time to help with the busy holiday shopping and travel season along the I-580 corridor as initially anticipated.
Meanwhile, through the San Ramon Valley, construction crews last month started work on I-680 express lanes from San Ramon to Walnut Creek.
And to the south, final design is underway for a planned express lane on northbound I-680 from Auto Mall Parkway in Fremont up the Sunol Grade -- the opposite direction from the adjacent express lane on southbound I-680, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this month.
"The idea behind both express lanes and traditional carpool lanes is to maximize throughput of people," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). "Where express lanes have the edge is in managing traffic speed and volume. Another advantage is better enforcement of carpool vehicle-occupancy requirements."
The MTC is among the agencies coordinating the "Bay Area Express Lanes" effort to create 550 miles of express lanes across the region by 2035.
"These new express lanes will promote carpooling -- carpoolers use the express lanes for free -- and will increase capacity and flow of all the lanes by making best use of each lane," said Tess Lengyel, deputy director of planning and policy for the Alameda County Transportation Commission (Alameda CTC).
The Alameda CTC, a 22-member agency comprised of county, city and transit officials, is overseeing the I-580 and I-680 south projects.
The I-580 project, which began construction in June 2014, is converting the eastbound high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and another lane into two express lanes from Hacienda Drive to Greenville Road in Livermore.
For the westbound direction, a single express lane will run from Greenville to the San Ramon/Foothill roads overcrossing, creating the first HOV-specific lane on westbound I-580 through the corridor.
New driving lanes were previously built in each direction as part of separate HOV and auxiliary lanes projects, Lengyel said.
The express lanes would be free to access for carpools, vanpools, public transit, motorcycles and eligible clean-air vehicles while other solo drivers could pay a toll to use the lanes from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The lanes would be open free-of-charge all other times.
Express lane access will be nearly continuous, except for limitations eastbound between Hacienda and Fallon and El Charro roads and westbound between Hacienda and San Ramon Road.
Alameda CTC officials hope the lanes will help maximize HOV efficiency and reduce congestion throughout the corridor, which ranked as the sixth-most congested freeway during commute hours in the Bay Area, according to a study released by the MTC in 2013.
The toll express lanes could provide a new opportunity to increase the capacity of heavily traveled I-580, according to Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon), who represents the Tri-Valley.
"My hope is that it will help alleviate congestion," she said, adding, "I'm going to be watching very closely to make sure we have the capacity we're hoping for."
Such monitoring will have to wait though, as the express lanes -- originally scheduled to open this fall -- recently hit a delay during construction, pushing the opening date out to early 2016, if weather cooperates, Lengyel said.
"We have had construction delays on the civil infrastructure due to material shortages, and thus a little more time is needed to complete full system integration efforts as well as system testing throughout the corridor," Lengyel explained.
Baker said the I-580 delay surprised her somewhat because she heard from Caltrans officials a few weeks ago that the project was on track.
"The main thing is they just get it right the first time," she added.
Among the project components still to be completed is the adoption of a toll fee schedule, which Alameda CTC expects to approve in the "next several months," Lengyel said.
The agency will use dynamic pricing, with toll rates going up or down to help traffic move smoothly. Tolls will increase as express lane congestion increases -- in an effort to discourage solo drivers from using the express lanes. The logic is reversed when congestion eases.
A motorists' toll rate is locked in as soon as they enter the lane, and the rate remains the same for the duration of their trip, regardless of any rate changes during that time.
Drivers who enter the lanes will be required to use a FasTrak Flex reader, which offers adjustable settings based on one, two or three-plus vehicle occupants. Electronic and visual assessments will be used to identify express lane violators, with the California Highway Patrol responsible for enforcement.
Toll revenues will first go toward covering operation and maintenance costs for the express lanes, with remaining funds used for other transportation and transit efforts along the I-580 corridor, according to Alameda CTC.
Baker vowed to work to make sure toll funds are not diverted away from transportation projects.
The express lane project is currently estimated at $55 million, with funding sources consisting of Measure B, federal, regional and local funds.
I-680 San Ramon Valley
Roadwork signs and equipment have arrived to start on new express lanes along I-680 north in the San Ramon Valley -- including a stretch of the freeway that saw barriers, cones and crews clear out less than 15 months ago upon completion of new auxiliary lanes.
The MTC-led project plans to convert existing HOV lanes from Alcosta Boulevard in San Ramon to Rudgear Road in Walnut Creek (southbound) and Livorna Road in Alamo (northbound), about 23 miles in all. No freeway widening will occur.
Construction, which began last month, is expected to last until late 2016. The overall project cost is currently estimated at $49 million, with about half going toward construction, Goodwin said.
Toll lane hours and rates have not been finalized, but MTC expects to adopt a toll ordinance next June, laying the groundwork for future approval of a dynamic-pricing toll structure, according to Goodwin.
Toll revenues will aim to help "keep traffic moving, improve the reliability of travel times in the corridor and cover the operations and maintenance costs of the lanes," he added. "Any additional revenue will be used to help finance expansion of the Bay Area Express Lanes network."
Whether express lanes impact another significant congestion contributor -- crashes -- isn't immediately clear, according to Goodwin.
"I am not aware of any data that show either an increase or a decline in accidents on express lanes when compared to either traditional carpool lanes or general purpose lanes," he said.
As for I-680 north plans, the San Ramon-Walnut Creek segment is the first of three proposed MTC projects aimed at creating express lanes most of the way from Alcosta to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.
A bigger issue for traffic along I-680 north, according to Danville Town Councilman Newell Arnerich, is that HOV lanes aren't continuous.
"If we have the ability and funding to complete the HOV lanes, then we should do so and allow people to use these solely as HOV lanes to see what positive impact they would have on improving traffic flow before the lanes are converted to tolling lanes," said Arnerich, a representative on the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which is partnering on the express lane project.
I-680 Sunol (southbound)
It's almost five years to the day since Alameda CTC's first express lane opened in September 2010 on I-680 south of Pleasanton, in the southbound direction from Highway 84, over the Sunol Grade and down to Highway 237 in Milpitas.
"We do hear regularly from our residents that drive from Pleasanton to the South Bay that the commute in the morning is better than it was without the express lane," said Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne, his city's representative on Alameda CTC.
"The express lane has improved speeds on all lanes," Lengyel added.
Drivers in the express lane travel an average of 16 mph faster than motorists in non-express lanes during peak commute hours, according to Alameda CTC. Additionally, average travel times in the non-express lanes were reduced by 13% overall and 22% from 8-9 a.m., according to Lengyel.
She said the commission collects its driving data using in-ground detection loops and overhead sensors.
Toll lane usage has increased 119% from the first year to the fifth year, from 1,410 daily users to 3,087, according to Lengyel. The average toll has been $1.94, and the lane has drawn more than 2 million solo drivers, according to Alameda CTC.
Still, she said, toll revenues are not currently exceeding operating costs, and the express lane is subsidized by grant funding.
I-680 Sunol (northbound)
"The question we are most asked about express lanes is 'when will you open the northbound 680 lanes?'" Lengyel said.
Alameda CTC plans a two-phased approach to creating an express lane along northbound I-680 between Highway 84 south of Pleasanton to Highway 237 in Milpitas -- a project that also calls for freeway widening and several auxiliary lanes connecting on- and off-ramps.
Officials just started with final design for Phase 1, the 9-mile stretch from Auto Mall Parkway in Fremont to Highway 84, according to Lengyel. The project would add an express lane and eliminate two bottlenecks in the area that cause heavy congestion during the evening commute, she said.
The design stage is estimated to continue into next year, with construction to follow in 2017 and opening in late 2018.
Construction costs estimates haven't been determined, but the overall I-680 northbound project has almost $120 million in funding designated from Measure B, Measure BB, state and federal sources, according to Alameda CTC.
Officials also plan to update the I-680 southbound express lane at the same time, "making it into a near-continuous access configuration to provide additional access opportunities to and from local interchanges," Lengyel said.
The road ahead
Express lanes only offer part of the solution to traffic congestion around the Tri-Valley, especially along I-580, according to local and regional officials.
"The long-term solution in this corridor is to have multiple types of transportation available to the public that facilitates commuters and goods movement," Lengyel said.
"Understanding that major interchange improvements will require a significant amount of funding commitment and could take many years to implement, Alameda CTC is in the process of initiating studies for incremental improvements that will provide congestion relief at this I-580/I-680 interchange," Lengyel said.
"Also, as part of the long-term network vision for the 550 miles of Bay Area Express Lanes, the 2014 (Transportation Expenditure Plan funded by Measure BB) includes $60 million for express lanes between Alcosta Boulevard and Highway 237 in both directions," she added.
BART is currently undergoing environmental review for a potential 4.8-mile extension of its rail line within the I-580 freeway median to a new station near the I-580/Isabel Avenue interchange. The project would also include a bus-to-BART transfer and a network of express bus services to link BART to rail service at the Vasco Road ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) station.
Lengyel pointed out that there hasn't been room for freeway improvements and new BART rail within the current I-580 footprint -- even before the express lane project.
"When a transit solution is included within the freeway median, widening of the freeway will have to occur and the HOV and express lanes will be adjusted accordingly," she said.
In the meantime, officials like Lengyel hope the new toll lanes, once opened, will provide much-needed help to a longstanding problem.
"While BART is a longer-term solution, Alameda CTC, Caltrans and its partners are working to bring immediate results and congestion relief to the public along this corridor," she added. "The I-580 express lanes will maximize the use of the freeway, and (toll) revenues will be reinvested in the corridor for maintenance and transit investments."