SAN JOSE (KPIX) – It has been exactly 18 days since the Express Lanes went active on one of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) says drivers going the whole distance, traveling the entire 7-mile stretch between 880 and 101, can save about 20 minutes.

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On Tuesday, during the heart of the evening commute, for the first time in a long time, the carpool lane, now known as the Express Lane, was actually moving.

Jody Hayes, who lives and works off Highway 237, and travels it every day, noticed a difference right away, driving from San Jose to Fremont.

“Probably 10 to 15 minutes [less], where we were going,” said Hayes.

Buses and carpoolers with two or more passengers can go in the express lane for free. Qualifying clean air vehicles with a valid sticker get a 50% discount. Solo drivers pay the full rate.

Hayes was carpooling and went for free, saving a good chunk of time.

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“Time is valuable,” said Hayes.

KPIX also got our first look at the Express Lanes Operations Center, which is staffed from 5am to 8pm every day.

Drivers who go in the express lane must use the new transponders with a toggle switch to indicate how many passengers are in the vehicle. The sensors read that signal and flash the corresponding number, so that CHP officers can double-check.

If you don’t have a transponder, then the series of video cameras will capture your license plate, calculate the distance you traveled, how much you owe, and then send you the bill, with a $25 penalty.

“We are offering some time for people to get used to this new rule and we will allow folks to pay the toll that they do owe because they used the lane, but we can waive the fee,” said Brandi Childress, a VTA spokesperson.

“This is a choice for people, you don’t have to use the lane. But folks choose to use the lane if their time is worth money,” said Childress.

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VTA expects to make about $3 million in revenue the first year. That will go to pay off the loan they took out to build the system and for maintenance and operations. Once the loan is paid off, the money will go to fund other express lanes around the region.