Options floated for toll hikes on the Bridge

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

At long last, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) will be hiking tolls. While this is a good thing for the North Bay’s transportation system, the rationale shows that GGBHTD still doesn’t understand its opportunities or how to plan for a better transportation system.

The toll hikes are designed to boost revenue to GGBHTD’s coffers to offset the massive debt incurred by rebuilding Doyle Drive. In a sense, this is exactly what the toll was designed to do: offset construction and maintenance expenses associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. In another sense, though, the district is giving up on an opportunity to cut traffic along with raising toll revenue. Nowhere is a demand-based toll in the works, and that means a huge missed opportunity.

Demand-based tolling

A demand-based toll, more commonly known as a congestion charge, sets a price to cross into a particularly congested area with the aim to keep traffic free-flowing within the cordoned area.

San Francisco has explored a few options. Five years ago it tried to work with GGBHTD to establish a demand toll on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was shot down by then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro, who called it a “Marin commuter tax.” (I don’t recall him being so upset about the annual 5 percent transit fare hikes that took its place.)

San Francisco shifted to examine its southern border with San Mateo County but faced pushback there, too. It was clear San Mateo saw this as a punitive measure against its citizens and promised countermeasures, including its own demand toll for San Franciscans commuting to San Mateo. (Given the congestion on 101, however that might have actually been a good thing.)

Since then, The City has studied the usefulness of a cordon just around its downtown, but no action has been taken to implement it.

Market position

As I described almost two years ago, GGBHTD has a transportation monopoly in Transbay travel between San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma, and strong market presence for intra-county travel in Marin and Sonoma. Yet rather than use its position to reduce traffic, as is its secondary mandate, it has chosen to punish transit users for years with 5 percent annual fare hikes and reduced service.

Implementing a demand-based toll would go much further to promote transit usage than marketing studies and start to reduce some of the intractable traffic problems in Marin.

As well, the toll would ease Marin’s traffic-caused CO2 emissions, both by reducing stop-and-go traffic, which is high-emitting, but also raising money to modernize the GGT fleet with more fuel efficient buses.

Ideally, GGBHTD would set out for itself an aim of managing the traffic along the 101 corridor and set its tolls and fares accordingly. Long term, it should start to charge tolls in both directions, in coordination with MTC (which manages the other bridges) with the express aim of reducing traffic congestion in and out of San Francisco. Though MTC has shown an inability to invest in transit wisely, the mere adjustment to tolling would surely boost transit ridership as congestion declines.

But for now…

But for now, GGBHTD isn’t pushing for such a tolling scheme. Instead, it wants to raise tolls across the board for all travel times, not simply the highest-demand times. To that end, it’s laid out four scenarios of how to graduate its toll hikes, 3 of which end with a cash toll of $8, or $7 for FasTrak, and one of which would end in a cash toll of $8, or $6.50 for FasTrak.

For now, with the GGBHTD we have, we should push for Option 4, which will raise $138 million and cover almost all of the district’s $142 million five-year deficit. GGBHTD has tried to balance their books on the backs of transit riders in the past, which is a sure way to depress ridership and push people back onto Highway 101. If we must balance the books, it makes the most sense to balance them with drivers’ toll revenue, as their vehicles do nearly all the wear-and-tear to the Bridge’s infrastructure and who haven’t faced a price hike in years.

GGBHTD must start thinking strategically about its transportation portfolio if it’s going to make any progress on its long-term capital needs and its mandate to reduce congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge through transit. We shouldn’t be pushing to “balance the books” on any of GGBHTD’s customers. It’s not fair to burden drivers or transit riders with the district’s haphazard approach to planning.

The best we can do now is aim for some measure of equity, which is certainly a better plan than none at all.

If you want a comment: The next public meeting is next Wednesday, February 12, 7 pm, at the San Rafael City Council Chambers, 1400 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA. Given the time, a wide range of commuter lines will serve it from the City as well as every line that stops at the Transit Center.

More details are under “How to Comment” on GGBHTD’s toll hike project page.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

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