Rakin’ in the Tolls


As we move into the second year of higher bridge tolls, we casual carpoolers can be thankful that we have to come up with only $2.50 to cross our bridges – $3.00 for the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting July 1 the big rigs, those giant 5-axle behemoths, started paying $18 to cross bay area bridges, an increase of $6.75. Next July 1, 2012 their tolls will rise again – to $25. On the Golden Gate Bridge, the new toll for big rigs is $22, up from $15 and will also be raised next year to $30.

Hybrid owners who’ve been enjoying car pool privileges and rates lost that perk on July 1 and must now join their commuting brothers and sisters in the non-carpool lanes. The program was sponsored by California assemblywoman Fran Pawley seven years ago, as a motivating nudge to buy cars that consumed less fuel. Does this mean that drivers are now on a roll, purchasing hybrids hand over fist? Probably not, but it sure does mean more toll revenue. However, take a look at the DC area – in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, all hybrids have carpool privileges and they double the number of hybrids in the nearby Maryland suburbs where there is no special privilege for owning a hybrid vehicle. Go figure.

More California tolls are rolling in from the newly instituted use of carpool lanes as express lanes. (In express lanes single drivers may use carpool lanes for a toll-fee which is charged on their FastTrack transponder). Two Northern California freeways added the express lane program last year and now Los Angeles County has joined the club. “It’s really not meant so much as a revenue-generating device as it is a congestion-management device,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. Well Martin, that’s good to know because, for one thing, it appears to actually negate the original and splendid use of carpooling as a ‘congestion-management device’ and now it looks like a great deal of money is being invested in the program just to keep cheaters out.

On the Bay Area’s first such toll/express lane, Interstate 680 between Pleasanton and Milpitas, there’s a whole lotta cheatin’ goin’ on and toll road operators are installing cameras along the route in an attempt to catch the solo non-paying drivers. “This is not going to be 100 percent automated enforcement”, said Frank Furger, executive director of the I-680 Express Lane Joint Powers Authority. “We are looking into the ability of technology to supplement and work hand-in-hand with the CHP officers in enforcement. We don’t have the technology to determine the number of occupants in a car.” This new system will also involve the expense of comparing photographs of cars taken at various points along the lane, sending toll-payment notices to the cheaters, and whatever other actions are necessary to collect fees and fines. The Bay Area is in the process of expanding the express lanes throughout the 800-mile network of carpool lanes.

Toll lane revenue actually seems to be diminishing down south in Orange County. Use of the lanes is down from last year – roughly 11 million trips were recorded on the 91 Express Lanes in 2010, compared with 11.5 million the year before. Those numbers were already down from pre-recession annual totals of between 13 and 14 million trips. Seems like much ado and a lot of short-term thinking. But it’s costing commuters a lot of money.

Soon to come with the first annual toll report – how much more are we paying, and (ahem) how is that money being spent?

Loyd Sigmon, Mr. Sig Alert


This last April I was enjoying an early spring morning casual carpool commute into San Francisco. We were off to a good start in a lovely Toyota Corolla, pleasant guy driving, traffic moving right along and all of a sudden ALL the lanes stopped. KCBS Radio reported that there was an accident near Hercules – a few miles ahead of us, with several major injuries, and that the 3 left lanes were blocked (that included us). “It’s a Sig Alert”, the announcer reported.

Sig Alert – a term I heard a lot when I was a commuter in Southern California, but not so much in the Bay Area. It’s defined as “any unplanned event that causes the closing of one lane of traffic for 30 minutes or more.” SigAlerts started in 1955, in L.A., thanks to a fellow named Loyd C. Sigmon. Loyd came from a radio background, station KMPC in L.A. and was in the army during WWII running non-combat radio communications. He used his radio talents to create a specialized radio receiver and reel-to-reel tape recorder that picked up LA police department traffic bulletins. When the receiver picked up a particular tone, it would record the subsequent bulletin. Before this device was developed, each of the many LA radio stations had to call the LAPD to get information on traffic accidents and conditions. As you can imagine, with the growing number of automobiles in LA, the frequency of traffic accidents and jams increased as well. Every time there was an accident, dozens of radio stations would call into the LAPD, tying up telephone lines while officers repeated the same information over and over again.

Sigmon’s receiver stopped that. Police Chief William Parker enthusiastically endorsed the device, and gave it the name ‘Sigalert’. Radio stations eagerly installed Sigmon’s device and were able to broadcast the information immediately.

Our Sigalert ended after about 30 minutes, the road cleared, and we were on our way again. Thanks, Loyd.

Summer Light


WEDNESDAY, JULY 6 Quick rides yesterday and today. It’s Summer Light and the hour-plus commute has become a 30 minute breeze. On Wednesday I rode in an Audi sedan with 2 other passengers, all of us passing our $1.25 to the driver. The driver reminded me of Chuck Norris – kind of a Marlboro Man style with a blue tooth securely clamped into his right ear and a crisp striped dress shirt. A lovely sunny summer morning, but the fog hangs out on the coast and will have its way with us. As we approach San Francisco and the bay, there it is – that ribbon of soft gray fog dramatically wrapped around the ocean side of the city, covering the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, while the city wakes up to the summer morning sun. When I return home, I treasure these few warm evenings that come our way in northern California, sitting in our garden, not needing a jacket or sweater. In the hour before sunset the California sun turns everything to gold, the trees alongside our house suddenly filled with flickering golden leaves.

THURSDAY I opened the back door of a Nissan sedan to a wonderful blasting Bach piano concerto on KDFC Radio. Great music all the way in to the city. Once we got settled the driver passed a bright yellow flyer to both of us riders, inviting us to attend a fund raiser for a candidate running for Vallejo City Council. How enterprising. Her car is well used with newspapers and coffee cup debris on the floor of the back seat. A great cobalt blue glass with a straw sits in her cupholder, a breakfast drink, I presume. Thicker fog this morning and cooler but a great morning nonetheless.

TODAY, FRIDAY Another quick commute in, alternating layers of cool air and warm sun. Crystal clear bay as we cross the ridge, ferries below leaving snail-like trails across the water as they approach the Ferry Building. My ride this morning is a red Honda sedan. A quick, uneventful Friday light ride with two silent ladies, immersed in headphones and traffic. The weekend is nearly upon us. Friday, summer, light.

Hot Times


TUESDAY, JULY 5 A short and pleasant wait today. A beautiful morning, about 65 degrees at 7 a.m. This side of the bay area (Vallejo, Benicia)had a HOT 4th of July – high ’90s at least, with a spectacular fireworks finale last night in Benicia. Now it’s reluctantly back to the job and commute today. I and another rider climb into the spacious back seat of a Hyundai SUV. The driver wanted to keep the front seat for her purse and asked us to sit in the back. The lady next to me starts talking about ‘gangster drivers’, clearly excited about something. “I always take a picture of the license plate of the car I’m riding in, when it’s with a man”, she said. It sounded like she’d attempted that this very morning, “but the driver got mad when he saw me taking the picture, and drove off!” “I like to take that precaution, just in case. And I always send the photo to my husband”, she added. The driver agreed. “You never know.” But she then added, “it works both ways, though. Some riders can be pretty strange.”

I didn’t comment, mostly because I didn’t want to get into that conversation. The photographer seemed a little over the top with her concerns, not like most of the commuters I ride with. If I don’t feel comfortable about getting in a car, I don’t. I wait for another ride.

But the conversation changed abruptly when we saw traffic stopping in all 4 lanes and a big plume of black smoke up ahead. Thanks to the driver’s husband, who she got on speaker phone, we learned that there had been a multiple car accident on the 80 freeway, near Pinole Valley Road, resulting in a car fire. We slowly inched along and finally passed the car which was totally destroyed. Only a gray metal shell remained, still smoking and being hosed by firemen. Hot! As is often the case, I never found out what actually happened, in spite of all my Googling. But it looked like all the people involved were alive and intact, at least the 6 people I saw, who were sitting on the hood of another car, grimly watching the car go up in smoke.

Still waiting to hear about the first year report on all those tolls we’ve been dutifully paying since last July 1. I did find one hot bit of some unsettling news on Phil Matier’s blog (this from May 4, 2011) – “Extra Bay Area Bridge Toll Money Lost in Bad Credit Deal”. It looks like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees Bay Area bridges, agreed to settle a contract with Ambac Financial Group for $120 million. The contract began in 2003 when the Commission started using Ambac to sell bonds to finance work on the Carquinez, Benicia and Bay Bridges at a much lower rate. Ambac sizzled and went bankrupt in 2008, and the contract said the Commission had to pay up. So there went about a year’s worth of the ‘extra’ tolls we’ve been paying. So glad we commuters could help out. Hot times indeed.

July Toll Anniversary Coming Up


MONDAY, JUNE 27
Looks like we’re not all on vacation this pre-July 4th week – about 30 riders grimly waiting in line this morning. A chilly, gray, overcast morning. I wait about 10 minutes and then here’s my ride – the back seat of a big Ford Flex. This SUV is a perfect fit for the driver who is a real big guy, easily 300 pounds. He’s wearing a snug short-sleeve red t-shirt and has a bluetooth device securely clamped into his right ear. KBLK on the radio and a big Starbuck’s beverage in his right hand. As I fumble for the seat belt latch my hand closes on a small metal object which turns out to be a tiny red car – a child’s toy. I put it into a pocket on the door. Manila folders filled with papers are stuffed into the back seat pockets of both front seats A sleeping lady is the front seat passenger and another exceptionally large fellow takes the other half (and then some) of the back seat next to me. Yes, we all pay $1.25 (that’s $3.75 for the $2.50 toll). But this driver undoubtedly could use some help with the gas – the Flex gets 24 mpg at best. There’s a dense fog bank along the coast and the sky gets darker the closer we get to San Francisco. Traffic is surprisingly heavy for a summer week, but we stay at the speed limit in the carpool lane and are in the city by 8 a.m.

This Friday, July 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the bridge toll increases in the bay area. I’ll be looking for the updated statistics and pass them along here. A couple of first-year reports have been promised – one from our friends the Bridge Toll Authority and another from the transportation studies people at UC Berkeley. July 1 also marks the end of the 7-year carpool lane privileges for the Hybrids among us. This is not just in the bay area – the new rule is for the entire state. And that means about 70,000 hybrids who’ve been sporting the carpool lane yellow stickers will be joining the ranks of the non-carpool lanes starting Friday. However, the white sticker owners, those drivers of compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric vehicles, will continue to enjoy the privilege of the carpool lane. It is hoped that sales of the CNG and electric cars will go up.

I think sales would go way up if the prices on these cars would go down. Cars cost a lot of money and hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles cost even more. A Honda Civic with compressed natural gas components costs $7,000 more than a normal model.

Bay To Breakers – 100 years


I just had to do it – the 100th Bay to Breakers, Sunday May 15. Last year was my first time and I’d thought my last, but the 100-year anniversary this year sounded like a special event I couldn’t resist. In preparation I’ve been going to the gym in the morning before work, doing ‘training walks’ on the weekends and getting shaped up for the 7.46 mile event.

Commute-wise, the best way to get to the race, especially if you’re outside the city, is public transportation. Baylink Ferries (the ferry from Vallejo) had a special Bay to Breakers 5:30 a.m. ferry. For me, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. – torturous to be sure, but better than taking a car and dealing with traffic and no parking. I ditched my plans for a costume because of the threat of rain and instead found a 99-cent plastic see-through poncho to take along. Although I only used it for part of the race, I was glad I had it.

After a chilly and wet start, the day turned out to be sunny and gorgeous. Because of added security and new regulations, the race was quite calm compared to last year and I missed the craziness and energy. No floats allowed this year, so there was no music along the way, except for a few groups of party folks along Fulton Street with boom boxes. 3/4 of the way, in Golden Gate Park, we passed several live bands. And there were still a few hearty naked folk, some even barefoot, too, but the outrageousness was missing. The best thing I saw was a guy in Golden Gate Park, near the Conservatory of Flowers, standing on a giant debris box. He was wearing a Barack Obama mask and holding a big sign that said “Thank you Navy Seals”. (this was of course, not long after the Bin Laden assassination). He looked bizarre jumping around up there on top of the box with that hilarious mask on.

I walked across the finish line at Ocean Beach about 2 hours after I began, smiling into the cameras, and looked around for my commemorative Bay to Breakers t-shirt. And the 100th Anniversary medal we were promised. I was told I’d have to walk about a quarter of mile back into the park, which I did, reluctantly. Enough walking, already! I was tired and hungry and my feet hurt but I trudged along. Finally, after about a mile there were long tables lined with boxes on one side and young, serious-looking volunteers on the other. The boxes held plastic wrapped commemorative medals. They were great! And now for the t-shirt I was promised. A volunteer said it was a little further up the road. By then hordes of runners were in the park and we could barely move. We walked and walked and no sign of t-shirts or signs indicating where they might be, and no one seemed to know. The runners I saw wearing the new t-shirts said they got them before the race. There were booths set up with free food samples (chips, cheeses, chocolate milk, peanut butter bars) and I managed to snag a few of those and sustain myself as I marched on.

I finally gave up on the t-shirt and joined my family for a delicious lunch at Tsing Tao – one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Richmond district, at 34th and Clement. And I decided to pay another $10 and just have the t-shirt sent to me. Yeah, I’m glad I did Bay to Breakers this year; it’s always a feeling of personal satisfaction to make it across that finish line, but I hope the city relaxes a little in the future and lets some of the craziness back into this wild, unique and very San Francisco celebration.

A June Ride


THURSDAY, JUNE 16, 2011
Once again the cars are lined up and waiting and I hop right into a Nissan XTerra – a very high up in the air van. From my view in the back seat I can see over the tops of the cars ahead of us. It’s like riding in a major truck. The driver’s an Asian guy in his late 40s, wearing a black baseball cap, green windbreaker, well-worn jeans. I love the tchotchka hanging from the mirror – it’s a base-ball sized ball covered with tiny paper flowers. A couple of plastic Chinese charms hang alongside the ball. KCBS Radio loud and clear in the back seat says there’s a car fire near the Gilman Street exit by Berkeley. Traffic has slowed down all the non-carpool lanes, but picks up as we near the site. The accident has been cleared and traffic is flowing. Rounding the Eastshore Park corner on the approach to the Bay Bridge I see several small water birds, standing on their skinny stick legs in the still water. The tide is far out, leaving a wide shallow and muddy shore. As our trip ends, we three comment on the lovely June day and wish each other a good one.