More Traffic than Tolls

Map depicting regions where toll lanes exist.

By: Allan Ko

Map depicting regions where toll lanes exist.

Traffic is indubitably the worst part of driving. It is the conductor of a symphony of honking horns, sprinkled with groans of frustration to accentuate the sinking feeling that you’re most likely going to be late. If only you could go into the carpool lane and cut around all this traffic!

Enter the I-680 toll lane, where the coveted position in the fast lane can be taken by anyone – for a fee. From September 9 to September 19, workers converted fourteen miles of carpool lane on the southbound portion of I-680 running from Sunol to Milpitas into an “express lane” which opened on September 20. Paying a toll via a FasTrak transponder allows solo drivers to enter the lane at three possible entrance points. Meanwhile, carpoolers, motorcyclists, and drivers of hybrid vehicles with all-access stickers can use the lane for free. Once a driver enters the lane, he may only leave through one of three specified exit points (separate from the entrance points), as the lane is marked by a distinctive double line that is illegal for anyone to cross during its operating times.

According to the toll lane’s website at, the benefits of this lane are that it “keeps local highways moving,… cuts greenhouse gases, [and] promotes ridesharing and mass transit.” However, this lane simply fails to accomplish these objectives. Because it is only legal to enter at three points and exit at three points along the entire fourteen miles, entering this express lane has little advantage over using the “normal” lanes. Moreover, those who carpool or use gas-saving vehicles lose much of their freedom, since their lane is now limited to only three entrance and three exit points. Certain exits (such as the northern Mission Boulevard exit, which leads to MSJ) lie inconveniently between two of the exit points. This makes commuting especially difficult for people who must endure the normal morning traffic just because their exit is inaccessible from the express lane. Government Teacher Jaime Richards said, “Once you enter the toll lane about four miles north of the North Mission exit… you can’t leave the express lane to exit at North Mission…. For me and a whole lot of other MSJ teachers, the toll express lane has slowed our commute.”

When actually saving gas and the environment is considered, it is neither ethical nor logical to allow people to have the privileges of this lane by paying a toll instead of conserving fuel. The original purpose of the carpool lane was to encourage drivers to save gas by using hybrids or motorcycles, or by carpooling, and awarding these drivers with fast lane privileges. By giving the same privileges to any paying driver, the government is sending the message that it is acceptable to release more greenhouse emissions, as long as you have money. It is difficult to see how such a policy “cuts greenhouse gases” or “promotes ridesharing and mass transit.”

In the midst of economic uncertainty and a large budget deficit, it may have made sense to set up a system like this toll lane to earn the government more money. However, this lane ends up costing more than money and instead impacts the traffic of I-680 and the health of our planet. As such, the government should have thought twice before foolishly capitalizing on a “money-making” idea. ▪

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