January’s Foggy Carpool Lane Issues


6-MONTH TOLL REPORT
Last month some mid-year figures came in on the new toll increases that were put in place last July 1 and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission seems happy with them. But how are we doing? Has commute traffic decreased? Is the transporation agency making more money? How’s the casual carpool surviving?

On average per day, there were 1500 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Carquinez Bridge, and nearly 5,000 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Bay Bridge. There has been a daily drop of 11,407 carpool vehicles for all bridges combined (Antioch, Benicia, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond Oakland-Bay, and San Mateo).

The non-carpool daily traffic has increased by 5,045. Congestion at the Bay Bridge toll plaza has decreased slightly, by about a 4-minute gain for commuters.

The Transportation Commission is pleased. After the first six months, the toll take has increased by $68.4 million and there are a few thousand less cars on the bridge each day (the nexus of most of the morning congestion). Looks like the Commission is meeting its goals. For those of us who champion the shared ride concept, this is somewhat disheartening.

It makes it seem as though pre-toll increase on July 1, casual carpooling might have been creating more congestion on the bridge, and hindering toll revenue. I recently read a UC Berkeley study, done 3 years ago on these very issues. In this study, two Berkeley engineering professors took opposing views on the effectiveness of carpool lanes.

Professor Mike Cassidy found the HOV (high occupancy vehicle “carpool”) lanes to be effective in reducing traffic congestion, but thinks the lanes are not being used properly. “They need more flexibility – use the lanes as needed instead of at fixed times”. Pravin Varaiya, the other professor concluded that the under-used carpool lanes simply take up desperately needed space from the regular non-carpool traffic. “Not enough people use them.”

Some commuters think the drop in carpooling, and in all commuting vehicles is due to unemployment and dwindling jobs. And there has been an increase in BART ridership since last July – an 8% rise in the peak morning commute and that may account for a few former carpoolers who are disgruntled with the new tolls.

Another point in this murky debate is that there’s $21 billion of federal money at stake – billions allocated to double the HOV lanes statewide by 2020. Caltrans, who gets this budget and does the work must be slightly dismayed to see carpooling numbers decreasing. In an effort for greater HOV lane efficiency, Caltrans has increased enforcement of carpool cheating (fewer than 3 passengers in a car), and just last month, construction began on an added stretch of carpool lane to the bay area 680 freeway. There is also a plan underway to create “Express Lanes” within the carpool lanes. This allows single drivers to use the HOV lanes if they pay a fee, thereby, theoretically, better utilizing the carpool lane and de-congesting the other lanes of traffic.

While I understand (somewhat) the dilemma of these transportation agencies who all seem to be going broke, I am disappointed that there is no mention anywhere of environmental concerns. Our commuting hordes in their cars and trucks and SUVS are burning up gas and oxygen, while freeways are expanded in a futile attempt to accommodate them. More and more land is cemented over and we are all still stuck in traffic.

Another UC Berkeley study is due at the first anniversary of the new toll increases. Stay tuned.

MEANWHILE, IN THE CASUAL CARPOOL
Tuesday, February 1. And uh, looks like the fog is back with a vengeance! But I’m enjoying a lovely ride in a new Mercedes. A chatty, well-dressed fellow driving. He and the girl in the front seat discuss weather, the storms back east, and how lucky we are to be living in California. Her beautiful long brown hair bounces and sparkles as she talks. She’s from Benicia. “I grew up there.” The driver is a transplant from San Francisco (“We lived in the Laurel Heights neighborhood, and it was always foggy”) and is happy to have moved himself and his family to Benicia. I have no small children but I frequently hear praises sung about the outstanding quality of the Benicia schools.

We duck in and out of the fog as the driver sips his Mountain Dew. Shore birds and ocean grasses poke up through the foggy shoreline water looking like an abstract painting.

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