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  • Waiting for a ride

Monday, November 29 The Tolls are Rolling in!

Damn! Ice on the windshield this morning, and it’s 28 degrees. I am happy to see a long line of cars waiting for riders so no waiting in the cold. It’s a beautiful clear morning and a rosey-hued sunrise is pushing up over the horizion. I’m in a commercial electric contractor’s Ford pickup. I’ve ridden with him before. I like him, like his truck and like his radio choices. Today it’s NPR and the buzz is all about the WikiLeaks. He switches the dial to classical piano (a Bach sonata) which is a nice accompaniment to the view of the bay this morning. The sun is now up and the water is so calm it looks like frozen ice. The city is looking lovely as usual in this golden light. A few stray ducks flap along over the water.

The toll gates at the bridge are a backed-up mess for the non carpoolers. It’s one of those moments when I renew my love for the casual carpool. In spite of the toll crazies and the occasional cantankerous ride, it is still such an amazing system. But it seems that Caltrans and some of our other transportation officials don’t see it that way. Take a look at Michael Cabanatuan’s front page article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (“Toll Lane on I-680 Working as Planned”). I talked about this issue in my September 10 Blog – “The Express Lanes Are Coming”.

What is going on is this: the 800 miles of carpool lanes in the bay area are being converted into Express Lanes, the southbound Interstate 680 over the Sunol Grade being the first to go. An Express Lane means that single drivers can use the carpool lanes by paying a toll, tallied by the ever-lovin’ FasTrack transponder. Sure, carpoolers can continue to use the lanes for free but as I suspected, the increased use by the single, paying drivers is adding congestion to the carpool lane. One carpooler commented, “It used to take me 50 minutes (to get from San Ramon to San Jose) but now it takes me 10 to 15 minutes longer.” I predict it’s just going to get worse.

The story comments on the toll revenue that has already been made, as though this is a marker of the ‘success’ of the new Express Lane plan. Cabanatuan reports, “In its first two months of operation, the lane has collected $105,611.” It is expected to eventually bring in about $5 million a year. The cost of setting this up, reconfiguring this one lane on this one portion of a single freeway (electronic toll-collection equipment) was about $37.6 million.

Of course, Caltrans claims that it is helping to de-congest the traffic. “it gives people some stability in their commute and the ability to get from point A to point B in a fixed period of time.” If you can tell me exactly what that means, go for it. I would also like Caltrans to tell me (and all of us who commute) why this is a better way to spend millions of dollars to accommodate cars instead of coming up with an effective public transportation plan.

Monday, November 22 – So Where Were You on November 11?

Monday morning, Thanksgiving week and there’s a break in the storms. They sky is a dramatic landscape of layers of soft gray clouds interspersed with pink and lavender from the sunrise. We’re getting a blast of cold Canadian air and the warm Honda SUV I’m in feels mighty nice. Traffic starts out holiday-week-light, but jams up near Richmond and we stop and go all the way to the Bridge. The driver is a friendly jean-clad lady with a purple dagger-shaped tatoo on the back of her right hand. The fellow in the back seat has some sort of gps or tracking device that shows what’s going on with the traffic – if there’s an accident, where the heavy and light traffic is, and he keeps us informed as we go along.

I ask them both if they were caught in the massive gridlock on November 11, the day the morning commute stopped on the bridge. Craig Carlos-Valentino stopped his car on the Oakland-Bay Bridge that morning, brandished a gun, and claimed to have a bomb. When authorities arrived and persuaded him to surrender he threw the gun over the bridge railing into the water. The out of control driver believed his wife was having an affair. Several of the lanes opened shortly after 8 a.m., but traffic stayed backed up throughout the morning.

Neither of my commute companions was stuck in the mess; the driver was waiting in the carpool line when another rider heard about the problem on her cell phone and told the rest of the carpool line. She offered to drive people to the Richmond Bart station, and a small group joined her. “We made it into the city with no problem.” The gps guy in the back seat missed a ride connection on the bus from Vallejo (lucky for him) and waited for the ferry, which got him into the city on time.

“There were people walking all over the bridge”, our driver said. “Yeah”, the gps man said, “guys were peeing over the side of the bridge. They were stuck in that traffic for 3 hours! You know, all that morning coffee.” That was one image I didn’t see captured on the news at 10.

“I talked to a carpool rider who left her ride and walked to Treasure Island to find a bathroom”, the driver said. “She didn’t find a bathroom and when she came back, traffic was moving and she had no ride. So she was stuck on Treasure Island”.

As for myself, it was Veteran’s Day, one of the few days off I enjoy at my job, and I was sound asleep enjoying my day off while it was all going on.

Were you on the bridge that day? We’d like to hear about it.

November 18 and 19 The Rain Begins and there’s more Toll Talk

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 18 is a shivery windy day with the sun poking through lots of clouds. Rain predicted for Friday and the week ahead. Cars are lined up and waiting. I pass on the first car – the hip hop blaring from behind the closed windows is practically shaking the car. No thanks. My ride is the next one in line – a Lincoln MKZ. A luxury suv with all the trimmings, and the driver declines the toll. Hey, speaking of tolls, have you heard the one about the Toll Plan for Downtown San Francisco?

This is a congestion pricing plan that would levy a $3 toll for travel in a downtown zone 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There would be a cap at two trips or $6 a day for travel in and out of the central area as well as within it. Bridge toll payers would get $1 off the congestion toll. People living within the toll zone, low income people and disabled drivers would pay 50% of the toll; taxis, buses and emergency vehicles would not pay at all.

I know, I groan too at the thought of yet more tolls, but have you tried to drive a vehicle in downtown San Francisco during those hours? When I drive and pick up carpoolers, it takes me nearly an hour to get from Union Square to the carpool line on Beale Street. The traffic is practically gridlocked. Something has to be done.
And tolls may help discourage people from bringing their cars into the city; HOWEVER, some sort of alternative needs to be offered – shuttles, better bus and BART connections, and so forth. According to TOLLROADNEWS (Google, and see for yourself), this sort of toll plan has worked in London, Rome and Stockholm. If it happens in San Francisco, it would be the first such plan in North America.

Some years ago when I visited London, I took the subway everywhere and it truly goes everywhere. Connections are easily made with buses and it was easy walking distance to get to where I wanted to go once I emerged from the subway. It’s not quite like that here. BART is good, but limited; MUNI is getting better, but there are long waits between buses on many of the lines. And keep in mind there are people who simply have no alternative way to get to work other than driving their car.

But it doesn’t look like this plan is going into effect any time soon. The project is now in its 4th year of studies and public consultation and there’s a long way to go. Still, it’s encouraging to know someone is thinking about ways to fix this traffic/commute mess. Thank you to Paul Minett at Trip Convergence, Ltd in New Zealand for passing this information on to me. He is a true sustainable transportation hero!

Cars are lined up waiting for riders. I join 2 guys in a big Chevrolet van. And away we go into a gray misty and chilly morning. The driver is dressed very Friday light, from his 2 layers of t-shirts and loose gangsta style jeans to his reclining position in the driver’s seat. He’s almost laying down. Once underway he strikes up a conversation with the fellow next to him in the front seat. The driver is on disability leave from MUNI, and is on his way to group therapy today. Sounds like he had something like a nervous breakdown from too much MUNI. “I stopped seeing the passengers as people after 9 years,and just saw them as numbers. I couldn’t do it anymore.” Ahem, and this guy is driving my carpool today. Okay, well so far so good. He continues talking about his life, his frustrations as a single parent of 3 kids under 10 years of age (also one 25-year old back east who just made him a 49-year-old grandfather of twins). He was raised in the Bayview section of San Francisco, as was the front seat passenger, and they fist bump when they realize they had classmates, teachers, and various adventures in common. They’ve both moved out of the city for survival reasons. “Too many kids gettin’ shot. I didn’t want that to happen to my kids. I’ve got full custody of them now.”

Intense. The view out the window as we round the corner onto the bridge is a welcome relief. About 30 wild geese are resting in the shallow water, rinsing their feathers and gearing up for more flight. Magnificent.

Tuesday, November 16 Changes in the Air

Today’s ride is in a VW sedan – a two-door. It’s a squeeze to get into the back seat but once I’m in it’s quite roomy. The couple in front seem to be together, both 30-somethings. The guy is driving – he’s a big fellow, probably 300 pounds. The lady is petite. It’s a golden morning, that special California sunlight that only we have. Traffic is awful. The carpool lane is great and is moving, but on heavy days like this many single drivers break the rules, taking a chance on a big ticket, and cut into our lane. So we all wind up slowing down. The warm weather is vanishing, but what a treat these few days have been. Autumn and Winter are about to move in along with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Each day when I exit the carpool at Fremont and Howard streets, I walk up Fremont to Market Street, where I catch my bus, the #2 Clement. (I have yet to try catching a bus at the new temporary bus terminal.) I’m sure many of you carpoolers walk the same way past the rapidly vanishing old Transbay Terminal. It’s been quite a dramatic demolition over the last couple of weeks. The overcrossing on Fremont street is completely gone, drastically changing the light on that street. Demolition is scheduled to take a total of 8 months, with 4 phases. We are now approaching Phase 3, which will include walls and windows and sidewalks. The crews have been working 24/7, scheduling the noisiest work for nights and weekends.

I walked slowly past the crumbling cement and naked iron supports of the old bulding this morning, recalling an article written by Callie Millner (SF Gate, August 16, 2010 – “Transbay Terminal thrown Under the Bus”). She expressed her surprise that there wasn’t a greater effort made to save the old building, or at least more noise made about it. She took one of the final tours through the place (sorry I missed that) and talks about the old diner and bar: “I was particularly taken with the old diner, which has a teal-and-butter color palette and a long teardrop of a counter. On the far right side of the diner, a shelf of plants were still green, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a former, bustling life for the place – complete with plastic-backed menus and uniformed waitresses slipping pies out of the old-fashioned refrigerated shelves above the sink.”

The architect for the old terminal, Timothy Pflueger. also designed the Castro and Paramount Theatres, 450 Sutter, and the SF Stock Exchange. Callie notes, “it’s loaded with historical features, many of which have been covered or shuttered for years: banks of phone booths, a long and lovely newsstand, an old state police office with a jail cell.” When I turn around at the corner of Market and Fremont and look back at the building, I can still feel the energy of the old place, and am glad to know that some of its artifacts are being preserved in historical museums and in other train and bus terminals.

Monday, November 15 A hot time!

It’s 70 degrees at 7 a.m. and it’s 6 weeks until Christmas! A beautiful balmy weekend just ended and today will be more of the same. Ahh. I’m riding in a Nissan Versa, very comfy and roomy. A glass mason jar is sitting in one of the cupholders – for the toll money. The driver is a tall, 50s guy, sort of Germanic looking. But then I just watched “Valkyrie” last night so those Germanic images are fresh in my mind. (The Tom Cruise film about the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler). The air conditioner is on so the car is quite chilly, in spite of the relatively warm morning. The disheveled blond woman riding in the front (also Germanic looking) plugs into a set of major ear phones. the big ones that cover your whole ear. I’ve ridden with her before and remember my take on her then – sort of angry and mussed. Traffic is bad. This looks like it will be a full hour-and-then-some commute today. But it’s so clear and lovely, and I’m not driving. As we near Berkeley the view of the city and the bay is just like a postcard – the city, the bridge, the blue water and the sparkling clear sky.

Flying directly above us, same direction, over the freeway, are 7 magnificent ducks journeying on their migration. It’s always a happy sight to see this continuing ritual. The freeway may roar beneath them, their habitats may shrink or vanish, the climate may be warmer or colder, but the migrators prevail, as they have and as they will. It’s a big hit of optimism and hope, and I thank them. Happy Monday.

Wednesday, November 3 – The Winners

Oh yeah, what a beautiful morning! Perfect weather, plus – we’ve got a governor named Brown, a senator named Boxer, a lieutenant governor named Newsom, and a World Series team! The big parade down Market Street today is already jamming up traffic and BART stations and people are in a party mood. I’m riding in a Toyota RAV4. The driver, a lady, and her friend in the front seat, I and another rider in the back. Surprisingly (or maybe not) very little seat and leg room back here for a vehicle that looks so imposing from the street.

With the new progressive lineup in Sacramento, we commuters crammed together out here on the freeways may see some changes in California transportation. As attorney general, Jerry Brown has been waging a war against smog and greenhouse gas emissions and is generally an ally in environmental protection and conservation. As governor I’d like to see him instigate some real action to get more hybrids on the road and to make them more affordable, more accessible. And then there’s the whole issue of mass transit. Our systems are just not keeping up and they cost commuters too much money. I’m expecting a lot out of these new winners. But today they can bask in the glory – it’s a great day for them.

Go California!

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – The Days After

The Giants won last night and it’s a gorgeous autumn morning. Unfortunately, I have to drive in today, so no sitting back enjoying the scenery for me on today’s commute. My friend is the passenger in the front seat, and a lovely lady named Barbara rides in back. Traffic’s a bit frantic, but we move along and are in the city in less than an hour. Along the way we pass 2 CHPs on motorcycles, and further down the road a couple more in their cars, watching for cheaters in the carpool lane. Although a few single drivers ducked in and out along the commute, no one ‘cheated’ long enough to get caught. That dramatic looking low-lying fog hovers in the meadows near the water and makes this beautiful morning even more so.

In case you haven’t seen some of the recent toll update information . . . . .

Fewer drivers are making the trip across the Bay Bridge during the busiest commute hours (5 – 10 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) They are either crossing at a different time period or taking BART. There are also fewer drivers in general crossing the bridge – a gradual reduction since 2003 when tolls began to increase and employment decreased for many commuters in the bay area. But with the increase in tolls, the reduced traffic hasn’t hurt the pocketbook of the Bay Area Toll Authority – they’ll be using $30 million of that new toll money we’ve been shelling out since July 1 to re-build the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza’s headquarters. When they announced the tolls and how they’d use the money, they never mentioned a new headquarters office building. There was a lot of talk about ‘seismic retrofitting’ of the bridge, plus freeway repair and maintenance. Goes to show.

Monday, November 1 – How about those Giants!

Many cars waiting and I am in the front seat of a Toyota SUV. A fat carved wooden buddha sits on the dash, accompanied by an ornament card with a drawing of a similar fat buddha on a string, hanging from the mirror. The driver is a 30s something Chinese-American woman in office-casual attire. She’s wearing brown tweedy suit slacks and a tailored blouse; her jacket lays on the wide armrest between the seats. An empty styrofoam coffee cup and a bottle of Arrowhead water rest in the drink wells. The three of us comment on the lovely weather and how lucky it was last night for the Halloween trick-or-treaters to go around on a relatively warm, dry evening.

KNBR radio tells us we’ll have another beautiful day and the World Series gets closer to what may well be a Giant’s victory.

We pass ground-hugging fog in the low spots near Hercules. It’s filmy and beautiful. Farther along as we approach the Bay Bridge we see the City (well, actually we DON’T see the City) completely wrapped in fog. Migrating ducks fly overhead near Emeryville. 3 small very still shore birds with thin stick-legs stand in the shallow pool that we see as we round the corner onto the bridge.

The driver says she’s looking forward to moving to Millbrae next year, closer to work. She is tired of this commute, having done it for several years. I have begun to drive more frequently and I agree it is exhausting and stressful. Traffic is heavy and not moving at the toll gates. They’ll be sitting there for awhile. We speed past and onto the bridge to greet a spectacular view. The sun has come up behind us hitting the thick fog in the bay that circles Angel Island and Tiburon, sparkling off the occasional windows that peek through the mist. It’s a Golden California morning.