Toll Authority considers fee increase for Bay Area bridges
on November 5, 2009
In an effort to raise money despite California’s battered financial situation, Bay Area Toll Authority commissioners are considering tapping into the stream of dollars flowing across the seven Bay Area bridges. By increasing tolls for drivers, including those who currently carpool for free, the regional transit agency plans to cover rising debt costs and pay for earthquake retrofits.
Proposed plans call for a $1 toll increase for general passenger cars, and a $6 to $10 increase per axle charge for trucks. Two of the three options under consideration include a $3 fare for the carpool lane, which would be collected using the electronic FasTrak system.
A third option would also include a congestion pricing system on the notoriously overcrowded Bay Bridge, charging autos an extra $2 to traverse the bay between the weekday morning peak hours of 6:30 – 8:30 AM. The Golden Gate bridge is operated by an independent toll authority, and would not be affected by these changes.
Public opposition was muted during the first of three public hearings held Wednesday by the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA). Five public speakers spoke about the proposals, with none registering opposition to the plan, which would go into effect in July 2010. Speakers did question the wisdom of charging carpooling drivers, or suggested alterations to specific toll increases.
“It seems to me this proposal is a little bit overburdening on the trucking industry,” said Alan Osofsky of Rodgers Trucking in San Leandro. “We are willing to pay our fair share, but I wonder if there are other ways we can look at this.”
Bridge Oversight and Operations Director Rod McMillan said the agency’s surveys indicated the effect on carpools would be minimal. “We’ve found that people are certainly motivated by money, said McMillan, “but they are even more motivated by time-savings.” Delays on the Bay Bridge during the morning peak traffic can hit 27 minutes for both FasTrak and cash-paying drivers. McMillan said that the new tolls would require all carpool drivers to have FasTrak installed but that the the lower volume in the carpool lane would result in few to no delays during peak commuting times.
Carpoolers queried this week at a casual carpool pickup spot in Oakland had generally negative opinions of the proposed fare increases. Phoebe Keeney, 31, a project manager in San Francisco, said a toll on carpools would be “awful.” Carpooling from the corner of Oakland and Montevista Avenues provides the best transit option for Keeney, she said, compared to other public options. “It’s convenient, it’s free, and it’s fast for me,” Keeney said. “The bus right there only comes once every half an hour. Here, I walk out my door and 5 minutes later I’m on my way.”
She added, “I might just go back to taking the bus.”
The proposed fare increase would raise an estimated $160 million dollars toward seismic retrofit projects on the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges. Both bridges have not received seismic upgrades since they were built in the late 70s and early 80s, respectively. Released MTC documents estimate the retrofit project for the two bridges will cost a combined $750 million to complete.
BATA estimates the $3 carpool toll would raise approximately $30 million dollars in annual revenue to put toward the project.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger said it’s a challenge to keep tolls equitable for different kinds of vehicles. “Our general assumption is that you want to limit the increase for 90 percent of the traffic out there to $5,” he said. “So we do believe that to make up the gap between what a $5 toll will do to 90 percent of the traffic, you need to look at carpool and trucks. It’s either one or the other, or both. There is really no other place to turn.”
Carli Paine, Transportation Program Director for transit advocacy group TransForm, said that while her organization supports the effort to protect area bridges from earthquakes, she believes charging trans-bay carpoolers is a bad idea. “When the region is really striving to pursue greenhouse gas emission reduction and congestion reduction, and has put a lot of money into getting people into carpool lanes,” Paine said, “it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to remove the important incentive of a free ride across a bridge.”
Jim Furgas, a casual carpool driver who is also a Teamsters business representative in the garbage and recycling truck locals, said a carpoolers’ toll defied the intent of the casual carpool program. “They put in the carpool to reduce emissions and get people out of their cars,” he said Thursday morning, as he waited for passengers at the corner of Oakland and Montevista Avenues. “Now they’re encouraging you to stay in your cars by charging you fees. More people will start to drive.”
MTC’s public documents indicate that carpool tolls will be collected by the electronic FasTrak system, a fact confirmed by BATA’s McMillan. When reached by phone, McMillan said that many carpool drivers already had FasTrak tags installed in their cars and he expected others would sign-up in order to have the time-savings of the carpool lane.
In responding to the commission’s questions and concerns about carpooling deterrents, Heminger said BATA’s research indicated that the costs to the carpool drivers would be minimal. “Even at $3, that would essentially be split by 3 people,” Heminger said. “So it’s a dollar a person. That’s not a significant amount of money, especially given the income profile of that [transit] corridor.”
As to the specifics of how passengers would pay drivers $1 for crossing the bridge, McMillan said it was something BATA hadn’t discussed. “I think its something that would have to be worked out between drivers and passengers.”
“Drivers don’t generally ask their passengers for reimbursement for gas — at least not that I know of,” he said.
Heminger characterized the entire toll proposal as “uncharted territory for our region,” and said BATA was moving conservatively but would continue to study the projected revenue as the proposal moves forward. “We can’t be certain what they will do until we try it,” he said. “That’s one reason we are recommending you try it for a limited period and see how it goes.”
The BATA Oversight Committee will hold two additional public hearings on toll increases on November 17 and December 3, 2009.
Additional reporting by Jun Stinson.
Image: Cars line up to pay at the entrance to the Bay Bridge. Photo by Lauren Callahan.
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