Highway Boondoggles: US 101 Expansion in San Mateo, California

The proposed Highway 101 express lanes project would add more than 22 miles of new lanes, at a total cost of $534 million. Image: Caltrans.
The proposed Highway 101 express lanes project would add more than 22 miles of new lanes, at a total cost of $534 million. Image: Caltrans.

In their fourth Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building across the country. Today’s boondoggle: the expansion of U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo, California. Widening U.S. 101 will bring more cars into an already congested area, while conflicting with California’s climate goals.

Highway 101 in the San Mateo area has suffered from congestion for decades and has undergone many projects to add road capacity – including seven projects to add auxiliary lanes since 1997. Yet today, congestion is as bad as ever, often slowing to a crawl at rush hour.

Years of widening projects with little impact signal that a new approach is necessary. Once again, however, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is planning to address congestion with a highway expansion. The plan is to add an express lane – in which single- and double-occupancy vehicles pay a demand-based toll – on both sides of the existing highway. In total, the project would add more than 22 miles of new lanes, at a total cost of $534 million.

The project is at direct odds with California’s goal to reduce global warming pollution 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Achieving that goal will almost certainly require dramatic reductions in transportation emissions, which account for 39 percent of state global warming emissions, far more than any other sector of the economy. 

Demand pricing can be an effective way to reduce congestion and pollution – yet because the Highway 101 project also increases total vehicle capacity, it will also result in more driving and more emissions. According to Caltrans’ estimates, the expanded highway will see 70 million additional vehicle miles traveled and an additional 40,000 metric tons of global warming emissions per year compared to the “no build” scenario.

Meanwhile, funding is needed for projects that could actually help California achieve its climate goals by giving commuters options beyond driving. Such projects include much-needed transit improvements in San Mateo country, including an increase in SamTrans bus service, and upgrades to CalTrain’s facilities. Such projects would also align with the priorities of local residents: San Mateo residents who responded to a recent survey indicated that they would prefer congestion solutions that take cars off the road, rather than add road capacity.

The project will also take money away from road and bridge repairs. Nearly 70 percent of California roads are in poor or mediocre condition, seventh-worst in the country. And nearly 30 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. 

California has many options for building a more sustainable transportation system. But building new lanes on Highway 101 will only further entrench driving as the region’s dominant mode of transportation, bringing more driving and more cars – and likely more proposals for new lanes in the years to come. 

  • thielges

    This freeway project parallels Caltrain, the state’s highest volume commuter railway. Caltrain is currently SRO and at capacity during the rush hour, discouraging commuters from rail and encouraging more driving. There’s a direct connection between Highway 101 congestion and Caltrain availability. When Caltrain attracts riders, congestion on 101 decreases.
    While there is currently a project underway that will increase Caltrain capacity, its own induced demand will likely saturate it again quickly.
    There’s opportunity to add even more capacity to Caltrain via a number of projects. The state should focus in increasing sustainable rail transit to reap the additional benefits of CO2 reduction, reduced secondary street congestion, and reduced parking needs. Widening 101 more is getting increasingly expensive and decreasingly effective. The only remaining options involve expensive, radical changes like creating a double decker freeway.

  • Kevin Withers

    Not sure why SB likes to call out projects, after they have already been approved and green lighted.

    And as everyone who pays attention knows, it is the stated objective of the MTC to expand these Express Lanes to the entire Bay Area road system. These new lanes will generate funds to create, yep, even more express lanes. Controversial? Yes, Lexus lanes always are, but a boondoggle, nope.

    PS: The blame for “taking money away from road and bridge repairs… that boogeyman would be Democratic state congressman. That’s why state voters may repeal the new gas tax.

  • The greater problem with regional transit is that so little of it is seamlessly connected to provide a viable alternative to driving. The other problem is last-mile connectivity. The DTX keeps being pushed back decade after decade. So much for CA’s commitment to climate control (as suburban sprawl continues to eat up the countryside) and the Bay Area’s dedication to public transit infrastructure.
    SM county is gridlock traffic thanks to the booming tech market that attracts drivers from all over the Bay Area. I live in the Sunset district…if I had a job on the peninsula I would drive versus taking multiples buses/trains. I’d take Caltrain if it were convenient, but it’s not. City leaders clearly don’t see the benefit of investing in transit either at a local or regional level.

  • Sean

    Why not just extend the HOV lanes? Building express lanes on top of the existing HOV lanes truly signifies that this project is intended for wealthy people who want a faster car trip in a SOV. Good luck condemning multi-million dollar homes along that route. This will be tied up for a decade.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    You wouldn’t take Caltrain. But since Caltrain is filled to SRO capacity, it is clear that many people would take Caltrain if there were more service – reducing congestion on 101.

    You seem to have invented a new logical fallacy: it doesn’t work for some people; therefore it doesn’t work for anyone.

  • KJ

    Lanes could just be given over to high occupancy vehicles, such as the many coaches that cruise along this highway. Another problem with adding highway lanes is that cities then create bigger on-ramps/off-ramps and widen attached city streets… this is now happening in Redwood City, which is right in the middle of this zone. There is no end to it. It brings more pollution to cities like Redwood City and makes life miserable for pedestrians.

  • Michael Escobar

    I live in the Sunset and work in North San Jose near Milpitas. I would love to be able to take Muni to BART, transfer to Caltrain at Millbrae, and transfer to VTA at Mountain View. If only there were a regional agency which could make all these agencies establish some sort of trunk system with synchronized transfers like the “ballet” that Streetsblog has described at transit hubs in Switzerland. All this capital has been invested in order to create a system which could function so much better than it currently does. Why isn’t schedule synchronization included in “state of good repair” analysis?

  • I guess Streetsblog should only report on U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group’s Highway Boondoggles reports that aren’t green lighted?

  • Sean Hussey

    Yeah, it’s not a boondoggle. It used to be that anti-transit would call important new subways a boondoggle. Boondoggle used to mean a pointlessly expensive project. Now, it seems to mean pointless in your opinion. In a way, I can’t blame streetsblog for keeping with the times.

  • Wow, love how people read what they want to read in someone’s comment. Suffice it to say, you’re wrong in your assumption. I’m leaving it at that.

  • calwatch

    With all the delays involved in construction, I’m sometimes wondering if the added travel time caused by construction is ever made up when the additional lane is opened. It will probably be 3-5 years of construction, narrowed lanes, closed onramps and offramps (which will add travel time due to detours), etc. to add one additional lane that will benefit the general lanes for a limited amount of time before it gets as clogged as before.

  • “Don’t build roads”; people will just use them.” Never mind that the population in that corridor has grown considerably.

  • Wanderer

    Population hasn’t grown nearly as much as employment, that’s a core problem. Despite any commentor’s personal preferences, Caltrain ridership has grown substantially. Meanwhile the Santa Clara County cities turned down a dedicated bus right of way on El Camino Real, which is generally about 100 feet wide. More jobs, not enough housing, no additions to transit right of way–it’s not exactly shocking that there’s a lot of traffic.

  • You are absolutely right. I am just debunking the nonsense of “Induced Demand”, which is to Traffic what “Spontaneous Generation” was to Biology.

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