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Draft Environmental Review Recommends Widening Highway 101

Photo: Bay Area FasTrak.

Caltrans released a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on Monday November 20 for the construction of “managed lanes”, or Express Lanes, on Highway 101 through most of San Mateo County. The report recommends widening the highway from 8 to 10 lanes to add the Express Lanes, having rejected an option favored by transit advocates and environmentalists and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to convert existing lanes to Express Lanes. The expansion to ten lanes is now estimated to cost over $500 million and finish construction in 2024 at the earliest, if the funding is secured in two years.

Express Lanes are free for carpools with three or more people and buses, but charge a fee to solo drivers that varies based on demand to maintain a congestion-free, 45-mile-per-hour travel lanes. Traffic experts say that Express Lanes speed up traffic flow in all the lanes during rush hours because they shift people vehicles to fewer vehicles by creating a lane that doesn’t get stuck in congestion, so you benefit even if you don’t pay to use the lanes.

Environmental groups contend the draft EIR doesn’t adequately analyze the Express Lane conversion option, failing to report the reduction in vehicle trips and increase in transit ridership resulting from the investment of several hundred million dollars in saved construction costs. They say the ten-lane expansion option will not only take five years longer to implement, it won’t even reduce congestion in the long term, as the expansion itself induces demand for more driving as the county’s population and jobs continue to swell.

“San Mateo County’s Congestion Management Agency should be called a ‘Congestion Creation Agency’,” chastised Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter Transportation Committee Chair Gladwyn d’Souza. “This [Highway 101 widening] is just another several hundred million more taxpayer dollars spent on more motorized traffic and fewer transit options. Instead we should invest in less traffic and more transit options.”

The draft EIR doesn’t even mention the Express Bus Study conducted by SamTrans, which alone could remove thousands of vehicle trips from the highway if paired with employer incentives, such as discounted or free bus passes. SamTrans Planning Director Douglas Kim had already concluded such a network of buses using the new Express Lanes “wouldn’t work” to reduce traffic congestion in the general travel lanes.

“The one promising thing that’s working in our favor is the reverse commute,” said SamTrans Director of Planning Douglas Kim, who reported in May 2017 that express buses would only contribute roughly one quarter of the mode shift from automobiles to buses that’s needed for the lane conversion option to provide as much total passenger capacity as widening the highway to ten lanes.

The draft EIR also ignores the potential of fully implementing the county’s 2011 Comprehensive Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan to reduce vehicle trips on Highway 101, estimated then to cost only half of what widening the highway to ten lanes will cost. That plan envisions a county-wide network of world-class continuous bicycle paths and routes, several running north-south in parallel with Highway 101. The bike and ped plan is nowhere mentioned in the EIR nor is the effect on traffic congestion of implementing it considered.

Caltrans has also failed to include policies in the draft EIR for traffic mitigation directed by 2013 California Senate Bill 743 to evaluate how to reduce the vehicle trips generated by the highway expansion. While basing environmental impacts and mitigation measured solely on the basis on the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) may not be mandated by SB 743 until late 2019, not quantifying and disclosing impact and mitigations based on VMT is clearly inconsistent with the state law and with many of the public comments made during the scoping period.

Caltrans and San Mateo County’s transportation agencies could be getting themselves into some undesired legal challenges with this EIR, as the widening of Highway 101 to ten lanes is the costliest and most impactful in the county’s history. Prepare your comment letters!

Read the draft environmental review for yourself, in plain English!

U.S. Highway 101 Managed Lanes Project Draft Environmental Impact Report November 20, 2017