Guest Commentary: I-80 Managed Lanes – $10+ Tolls Paid on the Honor System?

KDRT radio show Davisville uncovers hidden details on widening

Archive to listen at https://kdrt.org/audio/davisville-dec-25-2023-expanding-interstate-80-through-davis

By Alan Hirsch

I-80 widening is a 17-mile project (Dixon to Sac River) where they are converting the central shoulder to a travel lane and imposing toll for it use. Toll lanes are called managed, i.e.  auction off this new capacity—and setting the toll high enough at congestion times so it never become congested. This interview on KDRT radio, plus some background information makes clear some of the back story- but still misses details like all the other lanes will be narrowed to provide room for this new lane-  in addition to the loss of the center shoulder.

NOTE: Speak Up: City review of I-80widening at Davis City Council  Tuesday March 5th.

Below is a rough paraphrase of what the public learned first time when KDRT’ s Bill Buchanan interviewed YoloTD Executive Director Autumn Bernstein and Lucas Frerichs Chair of Yolo Board of Sup/Member YoloTD Board on his radio show.

Interview Time 5:00.  Good interview question surfaces that Executive Director Autumn Bernstein states paying toll in managed lane is on the “honor system” (her words) as no real enforcement for the proposed  “HOV3+ ride free” policy. Bernstein also states there is no way currently for CHP/Caltrans to automate enforce even HOV 2+ (backstory: 22-36% of California HOV lanes are failing to operate as promised their DEIR per Caltrans.  “Caltrans HOV degradation report” page 13) NET: after 25 years and building 1800 lane miles of HOV in California, 30% of them recongest at rush hour due to violators. Yet they want to make the lane on Yolo Causeway HOV3+ free).  Based on state stats your chance of being ticketed for HOV 2+ violation is less than 1 in 500 every time you flaunt the law. You can increase that margin by tinting windows (100% tint on side window in back is legal). Others have figured this out: in a recent Sac area study[1],  47% of user HOV2+ lanes on 99 from Elk Grove to Sacramento are law breakers. Yet, DEIR traffic modeling assumes only 10% violators). So, given tinted windows, even manually determining if there are 3 passengers in the back is nearly impossible, so the Honor system.

Time 8:30. Both Frerichs and Bernstein dodged a great question by Buchanan on induced demand: “Isn’t widening like chasing your tail?” Frerichs responded and changed the subject. He falsely mentioned managed lane solves the problem as toll lanes are never congested—but induced demand of managed lanes (VMT increase) is the same as that of a regular lane per Caltrans itself in its DEIR—and the other 3 lanes will recongest.  Neither explains the new lane’s capacity is dynamically auctioned off to the highest bidder.  So the richest 25% can buy their way out of congestion—just like school vouchers let the richest opt out of the public school system—the result is the richest no longer care about fixing public education, or in this case, of I-80 public transit.

Frerichs noted they will implement a “social equity program” for the poor using the toll lane, but never says what exactly that is (also see time stamp 20:00). Or just as important, how it will be funded. YoloTD has not funded a plan per public record request made end of January 2024.   (Not explored: how is tolling one set of working class/poor users then using this money to provide a benefit for other poor drivers not just a transfer of payment?)

Given that Caltrans continued to build HOV lanes even though they failed to reduce congestion shows their agency evidences they have no long-term interest in the operation of their freeway in an environmentally sustainable  fashion.

12:00 Frerichs suggest public input would be considered when Caltrans choose the managed lane alternative.  Note this input—a survey on YoloTD website—is meaningless as YoloTD did not disclose potentially high toll levels, and likely different toll levels between different managed lanes options (see below).  This radio interview took place late December but Frerichs and Bernstein never acknowledge the YoloTD board had already decided earlier on alternative, 4 (tolling with 3+ free) at their Dec 11 meeting. And the YoloTD vote, not Caltrans, is the only one that counts as YoloTD hold the purse-strings as they, not Caltrans, got the federal money for project. (See YoloTD MOU with Caltrans Oct 22 ).  NET: This is a controversial project and local electeds are hiding their accountability for this decision-—and I suggest their asking for public input on a survey, even after their decision Dec 11, is largely “performative.”

Toll Level Revealed for First Time

17:41 Great Question: “How high will the tolls be?”  Bernstein said “depends” but she did not say what it depends on…and avoids an absolute dollar amount. Did not describe that a toll set by the price for this new lane capacity is auctioned off to highest bidders.  HOWEVER, Bernstein did mention $1/mile at peak hour is typical toll other places.  Given this project is adding 17 miles of lane in each direction. It is unfortunate the interviewer did not catch this and ask if we “can expect $17 tolls?”   Managed lanes in Washington DC when really congested (and you really need them) can cost over $40 for similar distances. Note $12-17 daily tolls will test the honor system for 3+ drive free and ability to legally 100% tint back-side windows. (see interview stamp 5:00 discussion noted above).    It is likely at least two members of YoloTD board (Frerichs and West Sac council person Early) knew this information as—they have been meeting a closed door ad hoc subcommittee, but this is has never been shared with public. So much for transparency.

20:00 Question on Social equity & toll question returned a vague response from Bernstein   How is this not just transfer payment from one set of poor working class who pay tolls to another set of poor people? San Mateo social equity program on SR 101 only helps poorest 6%—and only from San Mateo County residents.  90% of Yolo80 users are from outside Yolo County—will Yolo County officials give funding to a Solano and Sac County social equity program for their residents?  Also note at the 12/11/23  YoloTD meeting they showed a slide (#20) that gave toll revenue for their preferred alt 4 was $9.6 mil/yr)—which likely won’t even cover 1/5 the cost for the $50+mil/year VMT Mitigation programs—so where will the money for a yet to be defined social equity program be coming from?  Linkto YoloTd board slide on mitigation (15-18) vs toll revenue—alts 4 on slide 20)

CLIMATE CHANGE? Sadly, interviewer Buchanan ran out of time and never discussed these topics:

  • The impact of project on both Davis and the State’s climate change adaption plan (CAP) and the GHG it would create.
  • Mitigation plan for VMT/GHG. The plan is for just 30% of GHG/VMT widening is produces. (57m out of 180m VMT/year).
  • Will widening provide sustainable solution to cut thru traffic in Davis? (DEIR indicates not—see minutes from Davis BTSSC meeting (included in 1/9/2024 council meeting packet on DEIR) or talk to CSUS Professor  John Johnson (an NRC member).
  • Did not ask about UC Davis Transportation researcher’s opposition to project. This was lost opportunity for interview as elected official on YoloTD board have only once  public responded directly to University researcher letter in opposition to the project. UC Davis ITS researcher Amy Lee and Jamie Volker made a presentation at YoloTD board meeting  Jan 2022 (recording) but that workshop was met by board’s near silence (I noted that silence contemptuously in a public comment during that meeting).  The only time Bernstein has responded directly about induced demand caused by manage lane was before 90 people at  Cool Davis I-80 Teach In. The result was 2/3 of audience there voted against the widening.

Davis City Council heard about UCD research from one of their peers at the 1/9/24 Davis City council meeting to review the DEIR.  ( 1/9/24 (link, time stamp 3:51:34).  At the meeting, Councilman Will Arnold read from Caltrans’ own policy on freeway widenings e.g. the CAPTI plan, and, summarizing: “we all know this…”  freeway widenings don’t work.  He continued calling the Yolo80 widening  “the definition of insanity.” Arnold resigned as Caltrans Director of Media Relations 8/23 so he likely knows more about this project—and the Caltrans I-80 whistleblower—than he’s telling. (Transcript Arnold’s comments).

[1] Estimate of the chance of being ticketed for use of HOV2+ lane is less than  1 in 500. Calculation: 1800 lane miles in CA  x 1100 car/hour/lane  x 8 hr/day HOV use x 260 week days /est 10 mile avg HOV trip = 411Mil HOV trips/year.  10% is max theoretical violation rate permitted by Caltrans = 41M low est violations/year.  48,000 HOV violation tickets issued in 2021 (Caltrans number per Sac Bee 2023) = between 1/100- and /500 of being ticketed if risk of violation. NET: HOV2+ is near honor system. No points if you are ticketed of HOV, so repeat offenses carry no burden.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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