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  • Waiting for a ride

Wednesday, July 14 Riding and Counting

Several carpool rides have passed since my last blog on Monday morning. MONDAY EVENING: the return commute was nice and easy. The line in San Francisco was short and moving quickly. I squeezed into the back seat of a Honda 2-door. There was no mention of toll. The driver and rider in the front seat commute together daily. I join their lively conversation about walking and exercise, and learn that the woman passenger regularly walks the Vallejo waterfront as do I. We talk about what a great 3-mile walk it is. I did it frequently during my Bay to Breakers ‘training’. The driver says he used to jog and was in great shape, jogging around Lake Merritt in 9 minutes! He laments his out of shape condition, and we encourage him to walk the waterfront. As we pass through the toll booth his FasTrack transponder does not beep, and he says it hasn’t for awhile. He also thinks the FasTrack people are overcharging him. I urge him to call them, get a new transponder and be sure they know he uses it in the carpool lane. Before I get out of the car I leave $1 for toll which he greatly appreciates. TUESDAY MORNING: No waiting this morning and I ride in a Ford 2-door pickup truck. The driver, who introduces himself – Brian – works in construction. The truck is a company truck, so no toll worries here. He’s resigned to the tolls, “it’s the economy “, he says. “The times we live in.” We chat about family and work. A nice ride. WEDNESDAY MORNING (TODAY): I’m off to a late start. Our hot water heater stopped working last night, so my go-to-work preparations were delayed by having to deal with very cold water. Wakes you up! But there’s no line of riders today, just a long line of cars waiting and I am in the front seat of a black Mitsubishi Evolution X. It looks like there’s $1.25 already in the cup holder (from the rear seat passenger), so I add mine. The driver is a young Asian-American looking snappy in a crisp blue-striped shirt and suit pants. I see the jacket and tie in the back seat. He’s an aggressive driver, doing 80 mph and flying by the three non-carpool lanes until a Camry pulls out in front of us. True to form, he tailgates, but then traffic gets heavy in all the lanes and we’re all moving at about 45 mph to the toll area.

As I ride, I count. I am paying an additional $50 per month toll contribution – $600 a year. The BATA (Bay Area Toll Authority) estimates that the carpool toll alone will raise approximately $30 million dollars a year. The revenue from the carpool toll will go towards the seismic retrofit projects on the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges, estimated at $750 million to complete.

It will also go towards the overruns on the $6 billion (plus) cost of the Bay Bridge retrofit. Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a 3-person panel overseeing the Bay Bridge Project, said “any cost over-runs on the Bay Bridge will have to be covered through toll revenue.”

The retrofit project became a priority after the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You undoubtedly remember the chilling photographs of the bridge buckling during the quake, when a motorist was killed on the east span of the Bay Bridge. In 1992 a UC Berkeley team estimated retrofit of the east span to cost up to $200 million. In 1995, Caltrans proposed replacing rather than retrofitting the bridge, due to the high cost, however the report on a replacement for the east span came in at $843 million in 1996. Go figure. $200 million versus $843 million? In 1997 Governor Wilson announced that the eastern span would be rebuilt, and workshops, design submissions, panel recommendations were in the works until June, 1998 when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved the bridge design at a cost of $1.5 billion. What? January 2002 saw the east span groundbreaking, with Caltrans announcing the new bridge would open in 2007. In March 2003 Caltrans increased the cost estimate to $3 billion, citing the unique scale and complexity of the project. Estimates continued to increase, until last December when the estimated cost reached $6.3 billion. Yikes. Whatever happened to that 1992 $200 million retrofit estimate?

$30 million annual revenue from carpool toll
$750 million retrofit Antioch and Dumbarton Bridges
$6.3 billion Bay Bridge rebuild

My $50 a month: chump change. In every sense of the word.

Monday, July 12 East meets West

Here I am Monday blah morning and the ride is a black Honda Accord. Sort of a glam driver. She’s wearing a wonderful green satin blouse under a military-styled short jacket with a leopard print scarf, big silver hoop earrings, long black wavy hair and foxy glasses. Lotsa style. The guy in the back seat puts up his toll money right away so of course I feel I must too. (I was actually going to do nothing this morning and see what happened). Traffic and weather are a repeat of last week: cold, gray, lite. A decent weekend, however; I think it got all the way up into the 70s.

I just read a funny piece in this week’s NEW YORK MAGAZINE (July 19, 2010, “Diary of a Cab Share”). In February of this year New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission launched a group-rides/cab share program which allows passengers to share cabs with strangers in exchange for a fare discount. Sound familiar, casual carpoolers? Cabs pick riders up from 3 designated spots, or passengers can hail cabs with riders already in them. The fare is fixed, depending on how far you travel, all within Manhattan – $6 is the maximum fare.

The article in NEW YORK MAGAZINE was written by Beth Shapouri, a reporter who rode undercover in one of the cab share rides. Her attempts at getting the other riders engaged in a conversation made me laugh – I’ve gone through the same thing as Commuter Gal gathering material for this blog.

After several unsuccessful attempts at conversation, Beth asks the driver, “Been doing this cab-share thing long? The Driver responds “Yes, a few years. The people are nice.” Beth asks, “But no one talks?” The Driver says “Mostly they keep to themselves. People are polite.” At this one of the passengers with earphones pointedly shifts in her seat. Beth stops talking.

On-line comments on Beth’s ‘interview’ include “Were we supposed to feel scorn for your fellow riders for not wanting to talk to you? I wound up empathizing with them.” And “Oh my lord. The people are in the rideshare to save money, not because they want some morning carpool chat time. I would’ve strangled you.”

The hope for the cab share program was to decrease traffic, give the cabbies more money, and make fares less for the riders. Unfortunately, it hasn’t clicked. I don’t think the incentives are big enough and judging from the article, it sounds like NY riders don’t like the shared aspect much, anyway. My ride this morning is a silent one and I leave it at that.

More pool tomorrow. CG

Friday, July 9 The first week ends

It’s light Friday here in the land of the cold gray mornings, and just a few riders and then a few cars and off we all go. As the car before mine pulled away, I was taken aback to see a hand written sign in the front window – “Toll Required”. No questions about to pay or not to pay in that ride!

I join 3 ladies in a Rav4 L SUV. When I pull out a dollar, the young lovely girl next to me in the back seat, whispers “After”. I nod, and tuck my dollar bill away. Okay. Everyone’s wearing jeans in honor of Friday. I’m in my gym clothes ready for a quick pre-work session at Club One.

There are hardly any cars out here at all today and I see we’re going 70+ mph. A rosary swings from the rear-view mirror and an odd little Japanese stuffed animal/creature sits on the dash. The Mehserle verdict is in (involuntary manslaughter for the BART shooting). I saw the announcement on Channel 4 news this morning before I left the house. The news showed empty Oakland BART stations, reflecting, I guess, people’s fear about being out and about on such a tense day. There’s been some property damage in downtown Oakland and lots of stores are boarded up. Waiting now for the judge to pass sentence. No matter what the outcome there’s no winners in this tragedy.

Within minutes we’re at the toll gates and even the Cash Only lanes are nearly empty. And then we are at the drop-off and passing our dollars up to the driver. And so the first week of tolling ends. Have a great weekend. I’ll be pooling around again on Monday.

Thursday, July 8 To Pay or Not to Pay

The evening carpool home last night (Wednesday, July 7) was fast and uneventful. A nice ride in a Jeep SUV. 50’s guy driving asks for toll contribution when we get in. He plugs in some sort of traffic device that is a running commentary on the local traffic. He also has NPR tuned in and later, KDFC (classical music station). All good sounds, except for the traffic device.

This morning (Thursday, July 8) a ride was pulling up for me as I walked up to the carpool line area. Looks like another bay area summer morning on the freeway – gray skies, light traffic. This was a Chevrolet 2-seat pickup truck. A UPS-uniformed driver was driving, which always makes me feel more secure – they spend the day driving in torturous traffic so the commute should be a piece of cake for them, right? I voluntarily drop $1.25 into his cup holder and he chuckles. “Oh, ok”, he shrugs. He says he doesn’t care one way or the other. “I saw a woman get out of a car in the line yesterday”, he says. “She wouldn’t pay the toll, so I guess the driver kicked her out.” He says he’s heard other riders say they won’t pay.

Now that we’re sort of settling into the shock of paying a toll in the carpool lane, I’ve been thinking about how this affects the driver/rider relationship. In a sense, riders have ALWAYS been paying. Before the actual FasTrack toll situation, our presence in a commute car saved the driver $4 each way – that’s $8 that the carpool driver is ahead of the non-carpool folks. Carpool riders now, even with the toll, are saving the driver $3.50 on the Bay Bridge and $2.50 on the Carquinez, or $6 a day if you come from Vallejo. And if the riders, in addition, pay the $2.50 toll for the driver, its $5 across the Carquinez Bridge and $6 across the Bay Bridge that’s in the driver’s pocket.

Yes, I know the driver pays insurance, gas, parking, but if they drove alone they would still pay insurance, gas, parking PLUS the $11 a day toll.

So – to pay or not to pay. What’s fair? And if riders are coughing up the entire toll round trip, should we have more say in what’s on the radio, the temperature of the car, the conversation?

I was anticipating (hoping) that the mutual sharing of the toll would promote more of a partnership between rider and driver, but am beginning to wonder if it’s just going to become an issue of contention. “You’re getting a ride, dammit, so pay up and shut up!” Or “We’re paying your toll, so turn off that damn hip hop!”

July 6 evening and July 7 morning -Coming and Going Observations

July 6, Tuesday evening, San Francisco

I got to the carpool line at 5 Tuesday evening and perhaps beat the crowd. There was a line up of about 20 riders, but the cars were flowing along. A great self-appointed ‘monitor’ – Brotha Clint – is keeping us all moving. “That’s b-r-o-t-h-a, not brother” he tells me when I ask him his name. He coaxes 3 riders into most cars instead of the required 2, and flags the cars along. He’s terrific! I’m in the front seat of a Chrysler sedan with two riders in the back seat. A lovely car. We pull out our toll dollars, but the driver turns them down. “You’re keeping me out of a traffic jam”, he says. We all say thank you. He’s a cute Kevin Costner-looking guy. He says that the increase in toll will prompt him to take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit – our ‘subway’ system) more often on days when he misses the carpool hours. Traffic’s not too bad until we cross the Bay Bridge and then it’s hallelujah time for the carpool lane. We are rolling along past the 4 crawling lanes of single drivers.

July 7, Wednesday morning, Vallejo

A short line of riders and not a long wait, thankfully. It’s another chilly gray morning. I turn down the first car – a tiny sporty roadster. My ride is a Land Rover, the driver a young woman with long brown hair, wearing jeans and a black and white checkered shirt. A very serious 30’s something. She asks for toll when we get in and I and the other passenger each give her $1.25. The GPS on the dash is keeping us on track, lest we forget where we’re going. A highly fragrant orange pine tree air freshener hangs by the driver’s key ring. Nice, light traffic – even lighter in our lane. I don’t see a transponder but just before the toll gates the driver reaches across the front seat to the glove box and pulls it out, still in its silver wrapper and slides it against the windshield. She wraps it back up after we pass the toll area. I noticed the Cash Only line at the toll gates was long and barely moving. The single-driver FasTrak lanes were backed up a bit, but moving through.

Tuesday, July 6 Tolling Along

Blah. Dark and cold this morning. Shivering in this 50 degree chill, I can’t believe it’s 100 degrees anywhere, but it is on the east coast, and then some. This morning’s line up is fairly evenly balanced – the riders and the cars all matching up like partners in a square dance. Dosee-do, here we go, back to work after ho ho ho.

I’m in the front seat of a big white KIA Amanti sedan – very luxurious and comfy. A large mellow lady is driving and the minute we’re tucked in she asks, “Are you prepared to make a contribution to the toll?” The fellow in the back seat fumbles around and gives her a handful of change and I pass her $1.25. We talk about transponders and how they work. I don’t see one in her window and she explains. “I used to keep it attached to the windshield, but someone broke my windshield trying to steal my transponder, so now I keep it out of sight.”

She said she’d heard that a lot of single drivers are slowing down just before the toll amount changes at 10 a.m., so they can pay the lower toll (the toll changes from $6 to $4 after 10 a.m. weekdays), and that the Highway Patrol is watching to make sure that doesn’t happen. We agree that the best way to beat the toll is to carpool. Today’s ride is quiet and traffic is still summer-light, but the 3 non-carpool lanes have 4 times the traffic of the carpool lane. It surprises me that more people don’t carpool, but for some there is the complication of picking riders up at a certain spot and dropping them off at a certain spot and that doesn’t work for everybody.

Nearing the Bay Bridge our driver pulls out her transponder and slides it next to the windshield. I ask her what she would do if we didn’t or couldn’t pay a portion of the toll. “Oh, I don’t really care, I’ll take riders even if they don’t pay. It’s more about the attitude. If they have an attitude about not paying, then, no. I don’t want them riding with me.” And she waves her hand dismissively. She goes on, “I think it’s too bad that people who are going to work have to be charged so much toll.”

Over the long weekend I read several news stories online about the new tolls. One on SF Gate by Michael Cabanatuan, on Friday, July 2 – “New Tolls Don’t Gum up Bay Bridge Commute” speculates on whether the low impact of the new tolls is due to vacation-light traffic or drivers avoiding the toll gates. “Traffic figures released last Thursday evening showed that on the Bay Bridge, traffic was down about 8.3 percent compared with July 1 of last year, and down about 9.3 percent compared with July 2 of last year”. And in The Bay Citizen , “Car Pools on Bridge: New Fares, New Anxiety”, we ride along with reporter Zusha Elinson on the first day of toll-taking. Her consensus on that first day was that the issue of who pays and how much was yet to be resolved.

So we toll and toil along. I’m waiting to see how it all works come the crush of traffic in September when we’re all back on the freeway.

Thursday July 1 – This is it – ‘For Whom the Toll Dwells’

Toll Day is here. I arrive at the Vallejo carpool line to see 10 cars lined up waiting for rides, and I’m the only rider. My ride is the front seat of a big Chrysler 300 Sedan. A lady passenger is in the back seat and the driver is a mellow guy in a t-shirt. I ask “Do you have your toll box ready?” “Uh, no not yet,” he replies a little groggily. I ask him if he drove car pool last night. “No, this is my first day back at work. We just had a baby.” That explains the ‘groggy’ response. We talk about the wonder and exhaustion of newborns. He’s pretty overwhelmed by it all – his first child.

I am still recovering from last night’s commute. I thought I’d ride one last time in the toll-free carpool line so at about 5 p.m. last evening I took Muni down Market and walked down Beale Street to Howard where the carpool lines congregate. There’s half a dozen pick up spots there for Oakland, Richmond, Hercules, Fairfield, North Berkeley, all clearly marked with signs. The Vallejo line is always the longest, and last night was no exception – 60 or 70 people waiting for a ride. I noticed that the traffic on Beale was getting really heavy – almost to the point of gridlock – and then found out that a couple of things had happened. First, there was a Giants game, which always fouls up the evening departing traffic, and then there was a suicide attempt at the Embarcadero BART station, which further aggravated the traffic. Apparently both BART and Muni service were stalled for awhile. It got pretty crazy and we wound up waiting well over an hour. I got a ride with 2 other passengers at about 6:15 and we realized we could never make the toll gate at the Carquinez Bridge before 7 p.m. At 7 o’clock, the carpool lane ends and the toll is the same for everyone. We all agreed to contribute to the toll (a dress rehearsal for today’s new carpool toll). I finally got home at 7:15.

Our ride today is off to a good start. Traffic is very light because it’s summer and a holiday week, but I’m surprised there aren’t more drivers car-pooling. That $6 toll is steep! Approaching the Richmond-El Sobrante area traffic thickens and I look at those 3 lanes to my right, all single drivers, no passengers, and think about each of them paying that $6 at the toll plaza. I and the back seat passenger both get out $1.25 for the driver, who at first declines, but we insist, and I lay the money on the tray between the seats. I don’t see a FasTrack transponder in his window and ask him about it. “No, I don’t have it yet, I’m supposed to get it tomorrow”, he says. I tell him not to worry, that today the penalty is waived, as long as you prove you are getting FasTrack.

The non-carpool lanes look pretty congested at the toll booths, when we approach at 8 a.m., more so than usual for a light day, but the carpool lane isn’t affected at all, and we fly right through.

Another comment on the commute last night – as we all waited and waited, and waited! for a ride, we talked. And the riders are not happy about the toll. People opened up a bit more than they usually do when we’re in a commute car. And the long wait made tempers and emotions flare a bit. “They don’t care about us”, one woman said. “It’s just the money they care about.”