Traffic Jammin’ with Janis Mara – Carpool Lanes on Bay Area Bridges, Fixing Traffic Signal Timing, More Lane-Splitting, Big Brother is Watching + MORE

March 17, 2014 · 40 comments

Traffic Jammin’ with Janis Mara – Every Monday at 2pm on Claycord.com.

TRAFFIC JAMMER: Greetings, all! This Claycord.com column is for everyone who negotiates the highways and public transit of the Bay Area. It runs every Monday at 2pm and answers your commuting and transportation questions.

Email your questions to trafficjammin@claycord.com.

COMMUTER: How does the FasTrak system or bridge authority for the Benicia Bridge know if I actually have three people in my car when passing through in the carpool lane? Are there heat sensors to sense the number of persons? The bridge toll is $5, but if you use FasTrak and qualify for the carpool lane it’s only $2.50 —- but how do the authorities know you had at least 3 people in your car? (Or is it just “luck of the draw” if a person gets caught or not by CHP?) Thanks!

 — Daily Bridge Crosser

TRAFFIC JAMMER: The California Highway Patrol is responsible for enforcing the law on Bay Area bridges, so the Jammer turned to CHP Officer Daniel Hill. His answer gives us a thorough education on FasTrak and how it works.

Before segueing into Officer Hill’s response, here’s the money shot, and I do mean the money shot: Violating the commuter lane plus evading the toll could net you a fine of more than $700. And now, while you’re picking your jaw up off the floor, here’s Officer Hill:

“The seven state-owned bridges and the Golden Gate Bridge all have lanes designated for high-occupancy vehicles (HOV, also known as carpools) during certain hours.

HOV hours on the state-owned bridges are 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The Golden Gate Bridge HOV lanes are active from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Golden Gate Bridge has different rules because it is not owned by the state, but rather by a private entity.

Unlike most of the Bay Area HOV lanes (except I-80 between the Carquinez Bridge and Bay Bridge), all bridge HOV lanes require three or more occupants (motorcycles and vehicles with only two seating positions and two occupants are excepted). All HOV lane users must have a FasTrak device, and will cross at a reduced toll of $2.50 ($3 for the Golden Gate Bridge).

All toll lanes are equipped with advanced camera systems to detect toll evaders. These systems are not used to detect HOV violations, as the law limits camera enforcement to red light violations and toll evasion. The cameras are very advanced, however, and capture the license plates of vehicles traversing the toll plaza at any speed.

Enforcement of HOV rules has always been the responsibility of the California Highway Patrol. Our officers routinely enforce HOV violations, both on freeways and at the bridges.

An HOV violation has one of the most expensive fines associated with it, and is at a minimum $490 anywhere in the state. You’ll often see CHP officers stationed near toll plazas, both to catch HOV violators as well as toll evaders and other scofflaws.

Since I mentioned toll evasion, it might be helpful to know that first-time toll violators can register with FasTrak and have their toll violation waived. Otherwise, toll violations are usually assessed a $25 civil penalty in addition to the unpaid toll.

However, if the toll violator is caught by the CHP, the driver will be issued a citation for that infraction with a minimum fine of $238. Combine an HOV violation with toll evasion, and that will be a very bad day for that motorist (to the tune of $728 minimum!). My advice? Better to pay the toll and use the correct lane than be caught by one of us!

COMMUTER: At 4:30 this morning the traffic light making a left turn coming off of Cowell Road going onto Ygnacio Valley Road didn’t change for over a minute and a half this morning. Usually it takes about one minute.  All the other street lights coming onto Ygnacio Valley Road going toward Clayton only take 20 to 30 seconds to change.  Is there any way to get this fixed?

–Faithful Commuter

TRAFFIC JAMMER: The horror of this reader’s commute, which clearly begins before 4:30 a.m., filled the Jammer with compassion and she hustled this question over to Concord Traffic Czar Ray Kuzbari, leaving him a voicemail message with the details of the location and the problem. With characteristic alacrity, Kuzbari dispatched a worker to the scene the very next business day. Here’s the outcome:

COMMUTER: The message you left him must have worked because the lights are changing a lot quicker now.  Thank you for the follow-up.

–Faithful Commuter

TRAFFIC JAMMER: Faithful Claycordian, it’s the least the Jammer and the Traffic Czar (hmmm, sounds a bit like the Captain and Tennille) could do for a hardworking guy who has to get up at 0 dark thirty five days a week – and doesn’t even complain about it. Long may you run!

TRAFFIC JAMMER: Lots and lots of Claycordians weighed in on the topic of lane-splitting motorcyclists in last week’s column. RIII commented, “Think about this, you are driving on a crowded freeway and stuck in heavy traffic Your lane is stopped and you elect to change lanes and someone splitting lanes at 20 to 30 mph faster that prevailing traffic runes into you. Who is at fault? It is certainly unnerving when this person comes by at this speed and flies ‘the bird!’ at you.” @37 responded, “That problem can be avoided by checking your mirrors before changing lanes.” ClayDen added, “Checking your mirrors isn’t enough; you need your head on a swivel, as there are blind spots with every car.”

Following up on this: There are four major steps to making a lane change as safely as possible. The acronym is SMOG, so if you are cruising along on the freeway, particularly on a dark, rainy night, you can use the acronym to remind you. It stands for, “Signal, Mirror, Over the Shoulder and Go.”

The first step is to hit the turn signal. It comes first so other drivers have ample opportunity to get your message and realize what you intend to do. The more those other motorists understand what you are up to, the more likely you are to avoid a collision.

The next step is to check both your rear-view and side mirrors to see where the other vehicles on the road are with respect to yours.

Now, as ClayDen encouraged, crank your head around and look over your shoulder in the direction of the lane you plan to enter. If you’re moving to the right, check over your right shoulder for cars in your blind spot. If you’re going to the left, look over your left shoulder.

Final step: Go, and may the Force be with you.

COMMUTER: Talk about Big Brother watching you. I will turn 55 this year and AARP sent me a letter inviting me to join. Thanks for rubbing it in, AARP! In my opinion, 55 is too young to be a senior. Does this mean I have to go in to have my driver’s license renewed in person?

–Young At Heart

TRAFFIC JAMMER: The Jammer agrees that 55 is too young to be considered a senior, and so does California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. You don’t have to renew your license in person at a DMV office until you reach the age of 70, YAH. For more information on the state’s programs for senior drivers, visit http://www.dmv.ca.gov/about/senior/driverlicense/driverlicense.htm.

Incidentally, our current governor, Jerry Brown, was born April 7, 1938, so he has to motor on down to the DMV to renew his license.

TRAFFIC JAMMER: That’s it for this week – see you next Monday. Be sure to cruise by Claycord.com at 2pm for more traffic intelligence. Remember, whether you drive, walk, bike or hop Amtrak, BART or AC Transit, Traffic Jammer Janis Mara is here to answer your questions.

Send your questions to trafficjammin@claycord.com

1 Pedestrian Through Downtown Concord March 17, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Speaking of waiting for lights to change, at the time 6:30 am to 6:45 am, on East St by the hospital after pushing the crosswalk light , with no traffic coming either direction for a couple blocks I can wait for the “white man walking” signal for a good 2-3 mins. Is there some kind of sensor in these buttons which may need adjusting?
I generally with become a jay-walker in the morning because there’s no traffic that’s anywhere close to me.

This also takes place in the evenings (around 6:00 pm) crossing East St by the hospital coming home but I figure there’s more commute traffic, so pedestrians are second-class citizens.

2 Julio March 17, 2014 at 2:17 PM

They don’t know. We had 4 but 2 were our grandchildren. Our protest of the ticket was not allowed. They would not even physically talk to us on the phone. Certainly left a bad taste in our mouth.

3 ladybug March 17, 2014 at 2:18 PM

I also have a question regarding crossing a bridge in a carpool lane. Last year my husband, kids and I were on our way to the lake. We had 5 people in the car and were driving through the Benicia bridge. I followed the signs that said “carpool”. Turns out the fast track lane is also the carpool lane. I do not have a fast track. A few weeks later I got a ticket in the mail, I think for $30 (violation fee plus the bridge toll). I called the number on the bill and explained that I was confused about the carpool lane. The nice lady waived the fee and I only had to pay $2.50 for the toll. My question is, if you have a carpool but no fast track, does that mean you have to wait in the cash line? It’s very confusing because if you follow the carpool lane it ends up being the fast track lane and you don’t stop to pay a toll.

4 Bill March 17, 2014 at 2:22 PM

So, in other words, your chances of being caught violating carpool laws on a bridge are next to none!! On the rare chance a CHP officer has time in the commute hours to not be responding to an accident or other incident they might be watching you drive through the carpool lane with too few passengers. If time is money, and you save 5 minutes per day (And $1 toll price) violating the carpool lane, how long does it take to make a $700 ticket equitable?? For me, it’s about 180 days. Sounds like it could be worth the risk..??

5 no ft March 17, 2014 at 2:27 PM

No fast track rfid radio beacon, no car pool discount.

6 nytemuvr March 17, 2014 at 2:36 PM

Officer Hill stated “The Golden Gate Bridge has different rules because it is not owned by the state, but rather by a private entity.” My question is, Who is this private entity?…. out of curiosity.

7 CLAYCORD.com March 17, 2014 at 2:38 PM

The Golden Gate Bridge is owned by “The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District”.

8 TinFoiler March 17, 2014 at 2:50 PM

State-owned or Falsely privately owned “The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District”. The Irony is that ALL of these bridges are PUBLICLY owned – Built and Paid for By the PUBLIC. Period, end of story.
Everything was all fine and dandy when they needed public funding to build these, but how soon they forget. How Many boards of directors and panels do you really need for a bridge? SCAM. Reminds me of the Sports Arena Scam.

9 Hate to complain but..... March 17, 2014 at 3:10 PM

By any chance has the timing of the lights at Clayton Road and Ygnacio been altered? It seems like traffic coming from Marsh Creek Road the past 2 weeks has had to wait longer to get through the intersection. Traffic has been backed up more and it takes about 7 minutes longer to get the kids to the high school. Just curious as I know we can leave 7 minutes earlier if they can wake up ;)

10 jtkatec March 17, 2014 at 3:27 PM

But, Tinfoiler, there needs to be separate Board of Directors to scoop up all that bridge toll money on their salaries!! We can’t have such an iconic bridge lumped with all the other bridges, no, no, that would be terrible.

11 Cowellian March 17, 2014 at 3:31 PM

Hit the button several times so it knows you’re serious.
;)

12 I'm The Urban Spaceman March 17, 2014 at 3:37 PM

FYI, The GM of the GGB makes over $250,000 a year

13 Crap Happens March 17, 2014 at 3:46 PM

all the time-but being aware is golden. Wasn’t this on before christmas last year?

14 Frank March 17, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Don’t think that “Daily Bridge Crosser’s” question was actually answered, which leaves many gray areas in my mind, so I take it to read that you take your chances and hope that you “luck out” and don’t get caught. Personally, I have never seen a CHP officer at a toll booth. Think that would be too much of a wasted time for them.

15 RANDOM TASK March 17, 2014 at 4:15 PM

Oh and as many have had happen what about the freeway going 65 mph in a line of 6 cars with cars on either side …basically stacked up all lanes doing speed limit and a motorcycle blows between all of us at 80 or more ……..this is why we are tired of this law .. sense if this guy loses it his attorney will claim someone startled him and caused the crash. so now I employ a dash cam …….my question is if I catch one of these rodeo clowns zipping between my car and others well over 40 on streets and above 80 on highways ….can I get these off the road with the footage and it is good footage both side and front and rear view cameras with speed and time stamps ……..if I turn this into the police can these guys be relieved of their license and fined heavy ……seems only way to stop them

16 JW March 17, 2014 at 5:01 PM

@ Random Task:

The basic lane splitting rule is to not split at more than 10 miles the speed limit. You shouldn’t split lanes at anything over 30 mph. Still, there are people who do it. Most of us don’t split unless traffic is moving really slow or to get away from bad drivers, texters or idiots.

http://www.chp.ca.gov/programs/lanesplitguide.html

If someone is splitting lanes at about 80 and you are doing about 10 mph, I highly doubt that the dash cam is of any use; especially if their plate is mounted under the rear fender.

17 ClayDen March 17, 2014 at 5:29 PM

One of the most disgusting accidents was on the KTVU 10PM news last night. A guy driving his pickup, high on pot and looking at his phone; he drifted off and rear ended a Camry at freeway speed.
Two dead, one injured.
Put him in prison and never let him out.

18 just a concordian March 17, 2014 at 6:14 PM

I drive through the Bay Bridge 3-4 times a month during normal commute and I’ve seen the cops waiting. They aren’t always there though. It’s a guessing game. Just like those lovely drivers who try to speed things up by taking the Orinda exit and bypassing about half a mile worth of traffic.

19 Jojo Potato March 17, 2014 at 6:15 PM

AARP is an insurance company, they have nothing to do with the government except for what their lobbying has gotten for them. Since they have made so much money on the insurance, they also use their member lists to sell cruises and other things old folks might want. I personally think they are a huge rip off, your mileage may vary. Very sad to hear that someone thinks they are related to the DMV. No No NO.

20 Frank, too March 17, 2014 at 8:07 PM

@ Pedestrian Through Downtown Concord:
This must be the exception to the rule. In my daily commute all along Clayton road (inbound, AM around 6:45) the smooth flow of traffic is of no importance when it comes to ped crossing interruptions. Never mind that there is a long stream of traffic approaching, let’s stop it to allow a lone ped to cross at his convenience. Same applies to cross street traffic, especially side street traffic making a right turn onto Clayton Road. These scenarios seem to repeat all over town. How hard would a little coordination be???
Hey, Janis, how about putting a bug in Mr. Kuzbari’s ear about this?

21 Mom of the Horde March 17, 2014 at 8:08 PM

A few years back my husband drove from Walnut Creek to Sacramento on a field trip, with 4 kids in the back of our minivan, since there wasn’t a passenger in the front seat, got nailed for a toll violation. That really hacked us off.

22 Agreed March 17, 2014 at 8:19 PM

If you are, in fact, a carpool, how does the Fastrak reader know to only charge you half price?

23 Huskerfan March 17, 2014 at 8:49 PM

Yep, I emailed Janis about the stop light on Cowell and YV rd. I thank Janis very much for forwarding my email and getting the stop light fixed. Janis has many resources and we should all appreciate it very much. Thank you again Janis and Traffic Zcar!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is great to know someone out there cares.

24 Daily Bridge Crosser March 18, 2014 at 12:40 AM

To “Agreed,” while I am the poster of the original question, I can only surmise that it’s simply “risk taken” if toll violators want to break the law. Given the answer of a potential $700+ fine, I doubt it’s worth it. However, it seems like people are being cited digitally through the electronic system when in fact they shouldn’t have. Other people are purposely taking their chances. Daily after approx 500+ crossings in less than a year, I have maybe only seen CHP stationed at the Benicia Bridge fewer than 4-6 times.

25 nytemuvr March 18, 2014 at 12:48 AM

@RANDOM TASK #15
Why does this bother you and a lot of people that much? I believe you’re embellishing a bit with your story. I’ve rode for many years and I personally don’t like lane splitting while I’m driving or riding. I don’t think it’s smart, but it’s not illegal under proper circumstances. Just let it lay as it will, life’s too short. Watch just the first 2 minutes of this, the way things used to be…..
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLzs14b2eVs

26 Anon777 March 18, 2014 at 6:28 AM

Thank you Frank. I read and reread this yesterday (about Fastrak) and didn’t have time to comment. Today I come back and read it again and there is still no answer. Long winded explanation for sure, but no actual answer of, specifically speaking of the Benicia bridge, HOW do they know to charge $2.50 or full price? Are you saying that between carpool hours ONLY $2.50 is charged no matter what and the violators get away with it because the cameras are not used for that?

Now for my complaints around traffic signals: I drive down Treat every morning at 5:40am from Clayton Road to Oak Road. Every single day I get stopped at two intersections without fail. First, the intersection of Cowell Road & Treat, even if there is no traffic waiting and it’s too long of a green for Cowell crossing Treat. Even worse, is the intersection at Bancroft, which again, will turn green for Bancroft even if no one is waiting (turn lanes included!). While there is generally more traffic around this intersection, the people on Treat at the light wait FOREVER for the green while all cross traffic is gone. Seems to me that the main drag should have the longer green than the side streets moving on to it.

27 Captain Freeway March 18, 2014 at 8:01 AM

Thanks to JW for providing the excellent link to the CHP “Guidelines” regarding Lane Sharing. As said in my last post of last week’s column: “There are and always will be motorcycle riders who are not safe or exceed the speed or safety limits – just like there will always be people in cars/trucks who exceed the speed limit or drive unsafely. There are good drivers and good motorcycle riders. Please always assume they are good ones until they prove they are not.” I both ride and drive and don’t like motorcyclists that lane split at 80mph anymore than cars that are overly aggressive lane changing gap-shooters. It’s okay to vent your frustrations here, but be sure you get all of it out “here” and not out on the roads. Good luck and be safe out there! CF

28 Cowellian March 18, 2014 at 8:11 AM

Back before carpool violations got so expensive, some people just considered the price of an occasional ticket to be part of the cost of driving in the Bay Area. But $728 is a lot more than most people’s car payments.

29 dear Cowellian March 18, 2014 at 8:21 AM

Just fyi…once you push the crosswalk button, it trips the switch. Repeatedly pushing does absolutely nothing to speed up the process. But go ahead and stand and push if it makes you feel better :)

30 jtkatec March 18, 2014 at 9:13 AM

But it gives one the opportunity to practice a melody. Practice, practice practice.

31 Cowellian March 18, 2014 at 9:14 AM

I can’t sneak one by you, can I?
;)

32 NerdyDigger March 18, 2014 at 9:57 AM

i cross the benicia bridge in car pool lane alone all the time. i once saw a CHP on motor cycle but he was on his cellphone we totally made eye contact as i went across in carpool alone, scary. lol he didn’t even care but after i got a ticket for holding a cell phone i decided not to chance my luck at all anymore its too expensive these days to not care.

33 RunnerDope March 18, 2014 at 10:01 AM

Janis,

Could you find out from RayK why so many traffic lights have been screwed up starting around a year ago? There must have been some systemic changes around that time. Many side street lights stay green way too long.

I mentioned the light on Concord Blvd at 6th St *** AFTER 7 PM *** before and RayK made a joke about it being right near his work, but he never fixed it. Concord Blvd traffic can only get 3 or 4 cars through before it goes green again for 6th St traffic. I’ve had to wait through 3 light cycles before getting through.

@Anon777
>> the intersection of Cowell Road & Treat, even if there is no traffic waiting and it’s too long of a green for Cowell crossing Treat.

I’ve noticed that one, too. It hasn’t been like that for at least 15 years, until the last few months.

34 ccat March 18, 2014 at 10:30 AM

Since we are on the subject, the caltrans website states that the HOV lanes cannot be used by carpools pulling trailers, even if they have the required fastrak and number of passengers. Am I reading this correctly?

35 RanchgirlCA March 18, 2014 at 10:43 AM

Went over the Benicia Bridge last weekend. I believe there is a separate lane, to the far left, for carpool vehicles with fast track. There were signs clearly stating at least 3 occupants. There is at least one other fast track lane for non 3+ vehicles. This should be how they know the difference, but it’s up to you, the driver, to be in the correct lane for the discounted price.

36 Sacto Rob March 18, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Two observations: the CHP officer DID NOT answer the question regarding the Fastrak lanes. This is not surprising. Government officials rarely answer questions on the first go-around. Instead, they throw out LOTS of information whch may or may no not pertain to your question. In my reporter days, it took me more than two months to get the CHP to provide me a spokesman who would speak on the record about CHP speed traps. I also tried to get some hard answers to my questions about the CHP’s Maximum Enforcement Periods, but got stonewalled for months before the CHP flat out told me they weren’t going to discuss the particulars. (I have since concluded that the MEP’s are just a public relations scam the CHP trots out some six times per year.) It takes multiple efforts to get solid answers from government officials, and even then you don’t always succeed.
Also, the Golden Gate Bridge IS NOT owned by a “private entity.” It’s owner by the Golden Gate Bridge District, which is a regional government. That bit of nonsense reminds me of the time a community college president tried to convince me she wasn’t a government employee, but a “public” employee. As if.

37 James H March 18, 2014 at 11:41 AM

As a rider who occasionally lane-shares at low speed, I can’t stress enough how important it is to signal and signal early when planning to change lanes in your car. I only split when traffic is stopped or crawling, but it is still a problem if someone darts over into the lane next to them with no warning. If I see a signal, I can throttle back and anticipate the car making its move. The same goes for when I’m not splitting back am just cruising in my own lane. It’s really not that hard to flip that turn signal on…and let it blink a few times while you look before changing lanes. The signal is of no use if it hasn’t blinked once and you’re already making the move.

38 TOB March 18, 2014 at 12:31 PM

Janis, let’s discuss Clayton Road even Ygnacio next week as it’s mentioned in posts often, almost weekly..

Why does the city keep messing up the lights. Seems to me Ayers gets WAY too much time crossing Clayton Rd that Clayton backs way past Alberta. One of MANY examples. Cowell on Ygnacio and Treat often a problem light giving more time to cross traffic than commuters. When this happens on YV backs up over Lime Ridge. Someone will complain then it’s all good for a month then they change it again. Like they can’t learn? Commute traffic should always have the longer lights not the crossing traffic in commute hours. Not rocket science.

Why is it so hard for city engineers to understand. For that matter why doesn’t Concord use trip sensors on weekends on Clayton Rd. They leave them timed 24/7 – 7days a week. Sucks on weekends having to make a left turn on Clayton have to wait forever and no traffic. Claycordians want answers! LOL

39 @TOB March 18, 2014 at 2:47 PM

You are exactly right! Someone has no common sense in that department.
There are many side streets that turn yellow when the last car is halfway through the intersection (like it should be), so it can be done.

40 Janis Mara March 18, 2014 at 3:25 PM

@TOB #38, @RunnerDope #33, @Anon777 #26, @Frank, too #20, @Hate to complain but….. #9, and @Pedestrian Through Downtown Concord #1, I’m a-gonna gather up everybody’s comments and have a chat with Ray Kuzbari, hardworking Traffic Czar for the City of Concord. I’ll report back to you either in the next column or the one after that, in detail! Thanks for the questions!

@ccat, can you help me out with the URL for the webpage where you found that rule? I am intrigued that Caltrans would be so specific – carpooling trailers? I will contact my sources.

@SactoRob #36, so nice to hear from another journalist. I understand your point, oh yes I do, but in this case I am ever so grateful that Officer Hill responds to my questions quickly and in detail.

Officials from other public entities I will not name consistently take as long as, in one case, a year, yes that’s right, a year, to respond to questions.

I have not discussed this in any way, shape or form with Officer Hill but I am just guessing that perhaps he is leaving certain things for us to draw our own conclusions.

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