California commission approved new I-80 toll lanes. Could you be charged $1 per mile?

New toll lanes moved one step closer to hitting capital-region commuters in the wallet last week when the California Transportation Commission approved one east- and one westbound lane with fluctuating tolls for vehicles with one or two occupants on Interstate 80 through Yolo County.

Autumn Bernstein, the executive director of the Yolo Transportation District, told KDRT’s Bill Buchanan in December that the actual prices had not yet been determined, but similar lanes in the Bay Area charge around $1 a mile at peak traffic times.

The 13-member California Transportation Commission met in Orange on Thursday and Friday and, as part of a broader agenda, discussed the planned lanes, which are part of the Yolo 80 Corridor Improvements Project. Caltrans, the Yolo Transportation District and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments are coordinating on the I-80 project.

The agencies plan to add 17 miles of new lanes, tolled for vehicles with one or two people in them from Richards Boulevard to Highway 50.

In the memorandum to the California Transportation Commission requesting approval of the tolling lanes, staff acknowledged that at a West Sacramento public hearing last month, commissioners heard “members of the public expressing concerns about potential increases in vehicle miles traveled due to expanded capacity.”

Susan Handy, a UC Davis professor who studies transportation, previously told The Sacramento Bee that research has shown conclusively that widening highways increases traffic in the long-term.

“We have a lot of very robust evidence that is very consistent in showing that when highway capacity is expanded, the vehicle miles of travel also expands,” Handy said. Adding lanes “doesn’t work because of human behavior. Because when the conditions in the roadway system change, we as individuals start to make different choices about our daily travel.”

A 2011 American Economic Review article explained that there is a “fundamental law of highway congestion: people drive more when the stock of roads in their city increases.”

The memorandum to the commission noted that $28 million had been earmarked for further traffic “mitigation measures, such as increased transit services.” Responding to Buchanan’s questions about induced demand in December, Lucas Frerichs, who serves on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, and Bernstein both said that the toll fees would help fund more transit services.

Bernstein argued that the managed toll lane would not have the same effect as adding a standard lane.

Buchanan also said, “No one’s gonna like the idea that wealthy people get a lane essentially for them, except for a bus once in a while they have to share it with.”

Bernstein said the freeway project would address the concern that primarily wealthy people would use the lane by developing equity programs.