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Highway 1 HOT Lane Proposal

Highway 1One of the projects passed by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission was the relatively new concept of HOT lanes. HOT lanes stands for High Occupancy/Toll lanes, and is a hybrid of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, and old-fashioned toll/turnpike lanes. Vehicles with an occupancy of at least 2 people (including busses and vanpools) are allowed to travel in the lanes for free, while drivers alone in a vehicle can use the lanes for a fee that varies based upon traffic conditions and time of day. The system works by using transponders, or small electronic boxes, to register a signal in overhead receivers, thus identifying the vehicle as a carpool, mass transit, or driver driving alone. Transponders usually require a fixed monetary deposit to get one, and the creation of an account for automatic deduction of the toll for those drivers driving by themselves.

Regional Examples of HOT Lanes

Currently, only two examples of HOT lanes exist in California, both of which are in Southern California. One is the median HOT lanes along CA 91 between CA 55 and the Orange County/Riverside County line. There are two HOT lanes in each direction within the freeway median, which are separated from the main travel lanes by soft barrier cones. There is only one entry and one exit point on the lanes, just at each end. Only vehicles with at least 3 people can ride for free--the rest must pay a toll which varies based upon traffic conditions. The transponders are required of all vehicles in the lanes--vehicles without transponders are banned. This is enforced via video surveillance and California Highway Patrol (CHP) patrols. The lanes were built and are run by a private company under contract with Caltrans. For more information, visit the State Highway Route 91 Web Site.

The second example is along the median of I-15 in northeastern San Diego, between CA 163 and CA 56/Ted Williams Parkway. Instead of permanent lanes in both directions, the two I-15 lanes are reversible, allowing only southbound (into downtown San Diego) traffic in the morning, and only northbound (out of downtown San Diego) traffic in the evening. Carpools, vanpools, and express busses (part of the county's bus rapid transit system) of two or more people, and motorcycles with any occupancy, are allowed to use the lanes for free. SIngle-occupancy vehicles are required to pay a toll to use the lanes. Access is only allowed at the ends of the lanes, although there are plans to add direct ramps to the lanes, as well as multiple freeway entry points. Transponders are used to identify the vehicles and debit the driver's toll accounts. Tolls vary based upon HOT lane traffic conditions, and are displayed on an electronic sign prior to the entrance to the lanes. If the lanes become too congested, they are closed to drivers driving alone. The funds collected from the tolls are used to operate the bus rapid transit along the HOT lanes.

HOT Lanes Northbound

Highway 1 HOT Lanes:

Back in August 1999, as part of the Major Transportation Investment Study (MTIS) and subsequent Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) approved $46 million for construction of HOT lanes on Highway 1. In April 2000, Caltrans provided the SCCRTC with a report describing their preferred location for HOT lanes--Morrissey Boulevard to State Park Drive--and reported that funding for a HOT lane feasibility study is being requested from the federal government. Caltrans stated that many options are possible for the HOT lanes, including two single-lanes running in each direction, one reversible-direction HOT lane, and multiple entry points to the HOT lanes. However, no money for the Highway 1 HOT lanes was provided by Governor Gray Davis in his 2000 transportation budget.

In late September 2000, the SCCRTC issues a request for proposals (RFP) for a feasibility study on the HOT lane concept on Highway 1. The study will augment Caltrans' currently ongoing Project Study Report (PSR) and will look into some of the following items:

HOT Lanes Southbound

Personal Thoughts On Highway 1 HOT Lanes

From an operations standpoint, HOT lanes will be used by those drivers and busses traveling relatively long distances, such as between Aptos and Santa Cruz, in this case. The CA 91 HOT lanes allow commuters from Riverside and San Bernardino Counties to speed up their trip into Orange and Los Angeles Counties. The I-15 HOT lanes allow speedier trips from downtown San Diego to the San Diego suburbs along the I-15 corridor. People also use the HOT lanes in order to bypass some of the major congestion areas along the regular traffic lanes. Both apply to the Highway 1 corridor, as many people travel into Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay Area from Mid and South County, and there are many congestion areas in between.

The biggest obstacle for HOT lane on Highway 1 is simply building them. Some areas of the highway have plenty of room for HOT lane widening, but others don't. In addition, many overpasses and underpasses will need to be reconstructed in order to fit in the additional lanes. So, here are my assessments of Highway 1 HOT lane space availability, segment by segment:

Starting at the grade under the railroad overcrossing, the median widens and becomes very wide in both directions. This is where Caltrans proposes to begin the lanes. I imagine that the entrance to the HOT lanes would be placed somewhere between State Park and Park, to allow those drivers entering and exiting the freeway at State Park to access the HOT lanes. In this area, there is plenty of room to add one HOT lane in each direction, and also enough room to squeeze in concrete barriers between the HOT and existing lanes, again in both directions. However, the two Highway 1 bridges over Park Avenue will need to be widened in order to accomodate the new median HOT lanes.

This is probably the hardest segment to work with. Between Capitola Avenue and Bay Avenue/Porter Street, there is very little shoulder or median room to work with. First, the overpass will need to be rebuilt to allow the full five or six lanes (depending on Caltrans' final configuration). Second, the hillsides on the downgrade will have to be reshaped or possibly replaced with retaining walls to allow for the extra lane or lanes. Third, because the freeway currently uses the leftmost two lanes on the Bay/Porter overcrossing, any widening must occur on the right edge of the freeway within this segment. That requires realigning the onramps and offramps at Bay/Porter to allow for the added lanes, and to line up the new lanes with the current three-lane segment on the upgrade between Bay/Porter and 41st. Within the entire segment, the current left lane will become the HOT lane, and the current right lane and the newly added lane will be the normal travel lanes. The new lane configuration will also require elimination of the short auxiliary/weaving lanes between Bay/Porter and 41st Avenue for use as through lanes, unless retaining walls are also built here to allow construction of new auxiliary lanes. Adding a concrete barrier between the HOT and regular lanes will also be an extremely tight fit, depending on how much widening is possible.

This is another very easy section to build, as the median is very wide, and the northbound shoulder is also rather wide. There is plenty of room for a concrete barrier to divide HOT and normal lanes in each direction. Depending on funding constraints, this also could be a good place to begin and end the HOT lanes, if extension out to Morrissey becomes prohibitively expensive. Realigning the southbound Soquel Drive on and offramps would probably be required in order to fit more than one new lane underneath the existing Soquel Drive overpass.

There is also little room to widen in this segment south of the La Fonda overcrossing. Some widening is possible on the southbound shoulder, but some hillside and possibly retaining wall work may be required on the northbound side to allow more than one new lane. The La Fonda overcrossing must be rebuilt in order to allow any new lanes. Once north of La Fonda, there is plenty of room to add HOT lanes in both directions within the medians. Due to the slight curve north of La Fonda, and the need to have adequate room and sight distance in order to merge HOT lane traffic back into the regular traffic stream, I doubt that it is possible to end the HOT lane before the northbound Morrissey Boulevard offramp--it may have to occur near or past the Morrissey Boulevard overcrossing. There is adequate room to extend the southbound HOT lanes to that same point, but it would probably not be required, although the need to begin it before the curve north of La Fonda may make it hard if not impossible for traffic from northbound Morrissey to enter the HOT lanes--they would be too closely spaced.

Most likely, Caltrans will find a need to overlap the proposed auxiliary lanes between Morrissey and Highway 17 with the HOT lanes, in order to reduce the potential of congestion caused by the closely-spaced weaving and merging created by the new lanes. There is plenty of right of way available to do this between Morrissey and the Branciforte Avenue overcrossing. Direct connections to the auxiliary lanes, such as making the HOT lanes start and end from the leftmost lanes in each direction north of Morrissey and extending the auxiliary lanes to become the rightmost lane south of Morrissey, are not realistic for optimal traffic operations, as 1) it is against Caltrans protocol to suddenly change the status of a regular traffic lane into an HOV or HOT lane at any point along its length--it must be a newly created lane that drivers have a choice to enter--and 2) it will create weaving problems for northbound drivers attempting to exit at Highway 17, perhaps to the point of unintentionally limiting HOT lane use to only those drivers traveling into Santa Cruz. This could hurt the success of the HOT lanes overall. If such direct connections are added, they should be done in conjunction with separate HOT lane ramps and/or a complete rebuilding of the Fishhook.

One other idea I have had for a while would be to extend the HOT lane southbound all the way to the Highway 17 offramp to southbound Highway 1, where the ramp widens from one to two lanes. The HOT lane would continue along the existing left lane. This would be simply an extension of the Fishhook improvements, with just the lengthening of the rightmost ramp lane into a merge with the leftmost lane on southbound Highway 1. An additional HOT lane entry point would be added at Morrissey to allow for those drivers not on Highway 17 to enter the HOT lanes. Caltrans, though, probably didn't include this lane extension and merging in their plans due to sight distance concerns with the merge, so this entire proposal may be unrealistic. However, if the HOT lanes become a success, such an extension could help capture more users.

Other Thoughts

As for the issue of multiple entries and exits to the lanes, this will also help determine how successful the HOT lanes become. Multiple entry and exit points will certainly make the HOT lanes more convenient for more users, but success can also be a bad thing, and if the HOT lanes are too convenient, one lane may not be enough capacity. Also, more entries and exits create the problems of distance-based fee structures (should someone only traveling a short time in the lanes pay as much as someone traveling the entire length?) and increase merging and weaving (which increases accident potential and reduces optimal speeds at which HOT lane and regular lane drivers can travel). My personal opinion is that if any extra entries and exits are provided, they should be added between 41st and Soquel. This is the only place other than the endpoints where there is enough right of way to add entries and exits, and the large volumes entering and exiting at 41st could easily justify such an addition. If extra entries and exits are added, the receiving electronics for detecting the vehicle transponders would probably have to be regularly spaced at a fixed distance away from each other, with a small charge per fixed distance, e.g. 4 cents per 1500 feet, would be charged to the single occupant's account. Otherwise, fees for use of the HOT lanes would not be uniform for all users. Such a system might also work if it becomes impossible to separate HOT lane traffic from regular traffic via fixed barriers due to right of way or cost constraints.

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Highway 1 shield courtesy Joel Windmiller.
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