San Mateo 101 Express Lanes Officially Opened With Ceremony — but Critics Say Traffic and Pollution Will Be Worse

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Ten people stand in a row with a freeway behind them as they cut a blue ribbon and smile.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony officially inaugurating the San Mateo 101 express lanes, with (sixth from left) San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina Assemblymember Diane Papan (third from right), and Rep. Kevin Mullin (fourth from right), on April 15, 2023, in San Mateo. (Elize Manoukian/KQED)

The San Mateo 101 Express Lanes Project officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday. The 22 miles of express lanes that extend along Highway 101 from the San Mateo/Santa Clara county line to Interstate 380 in South San Francisco are intended to reduce traffic congestion and encourage carpooling and transit use along one of the busiest thoroughfares on the San Francisco Peninsula.

“The express lanes opening in San Mateo County has been years in the making [and] it’s finally come to fruition,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Mullin of San Mateo, who represents District 15. “It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the environment, and it’s a win for all of the stakeholders who’ve been involved for years now in pulling this project together.”

A blue and white project map with roads outlined, shown in shade outdoors.
A map of the San Mateo 101 Express Lanes at the opening ceremony on April 15, 2023, in San Mateo. (Elize Manoukian/KQED)

The $581 million project — funded through a combination of federal, state, local, regional and private contributions — involved Caltrans, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County and the San Mateo County Express Lanes Joint Powers Authority. Construction began in 2019. Attendees of the opening ceremony included Mullin, Assemblymember Diane Papan and San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina.

The lanes, which have been operational since March 3, use “dynamic pricing” to set the toll price, which rises and falls depending on how crowded the lane is, varying between $0.50 and $12.

The project also has an equity component through the Community Transportation Benefits Program (PDF), whereby qualifying San Mateo County residents with incomes of 60% of the county’s average median income (about $70,000) or less can use a Clipper card with a value of $100 provided annually, or a FasTrak toll tag/transponder with a value of $100 provided one time, for use on the express lanes. Vehicles with three or more people, buses, vans and motorcycles can use the express lanes toll-free, with 50% off for vehicles with two people and clean-air vehicles (with a valid clean-air decal from the California Department of Motor Vehicles).

“This equity program is the first of its kind with toll lanes anywhere in California,” said Papan, who represents the 21st Assembly District, which includes San Mateo County. “We didn’t want them just to be Lexus lanes. We really wanted an equity component … taking dollars out of the lane, putting them in public transportation and helping folks along the way. A win-win-win.”

But not everyone is celebrating. Some have claimed the project has already proven to be a failure and that congestion and pollution are as bad as ever. Critics of the project came to the opening, with local safe streets and climate advocate Mike Swire calling the project “the worst local environmental decision in recent memory.”

A white woman speaks from a stage and points at a screen to her right with people in the foreground listening on.
Assemblymember Diane Papan (D-21) speaks at the opening ceremony of the San Mateo 101 Express Lanes on April 15, 2023, in San Mateo. (Elize Manoukian/KQED)

“Highway widening has never worked,” said Swire, who is also a member of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority Citizens Advisory Committee but was not speaking on behalf of the committee. “It creates what’s called induced demand, which means that basically the easier you make it for people to drive, more people will drive. The county and elected officials had an opportunity to install express lanes without widening the highway, but instead they chose to widen it, which simply adds more capacity for more cars, [which] adds more cars, which means more air pollution — largely falling on communities that are people of color and low-income living adjacent to highways.”

“I’m concerned because I believe that as San Mateo County grows and as the Bay Area grows, we need to be investing in transit and we need to provide that money,” said Darryl Yip, a transportation planner who lives in South San Francisco. “San Mateo County just spent $600 million. They’re doing Phase 3, which is going to cost another several hundred million dollars at the same time that both SamTrans and Caltrain are in a transit fiscal cliff. And when the county is choosing to put money onto freeway widening and not into investing in Caltrain or SamTrans, in investing in alternatives to driving, that’s a big problem.”

Touting the environmental benefits of the project, Mullin said the express lanes would “bring real efficiencies to this entire corridor and actually address greenhouse gas emissions” and that it would create a revenue stream for public transit that he said would have “a tremendous environmental benefit.” Papan also said it wouldlower our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Swire, meanwhile, said the new express lanes would only add to greenhouse gas emissions by widening the busiest road by 25%. He also added that it would lead to more “traffic violence” and make the neighborhoods it passes through “more dangerous,” citing an escalation of accidents and deaths involving pedestrians and cyclists on the 101.

Two men, one young and Asian with a shaved head, the other middle-aged and white, with sunglasses, a baseball cap and a white beard, both smiling, hold signs that read "More Cars Bad" and "They Can't Breathe"
Darryl Yip (left) and Mike Swire show their opposition at the official opening of the express lanes on April 15, 2023, in San Mateo. (Elize Manoukian/KQED)

“We lost this battle, and this highway’s been widened,” said Swire. “But the upcoming battle is whether or not to repeat this mistake on 101 from 380 in North San Francisco. … We’re going to do everything possible to make sure that any project up there, even if it includes express lanes, converts an existing lane instead of widening the highway, adding cars, increasing air pollution, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing traffic violence. It’s OK to do express lanes, but we don’t need to widen with the next project.”

“Transportation is the No. 1 producer of greenhouse gas emissions on the peninsula right now, [representing] about 60% of emissions, and here we are incenting more people to drive,” he added. “It’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

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