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Marin County, the toll rings for thee

By enelson
Monday, December 17th, 2007 at 7:37 pm in Golden Gate Bridge, tolls, Transit vs. driving.

doyle-drive.jpgIt’s really funny how things that make perfect sense to a roomful of bureaucrats make no sense whatsoever to most other people. I’m supposed to to bridge that gap, so to speak, because my job involves studying the logic of the bureaucrats and translating it into the vulgar language of Noah Webster.

Today I noticed that our free-spirited sister paper, the Marin Independent Journal, had a column that cuts to the very core of that disconnect.

Here’s the bureaucrat’s logic:

1. We don’t have enough money to pay for our existing infrastructure, to say nothing of building new infrastructure.

2. We need to get more people to ride public transit, to take the pressure off clogged freeways and cut back on air pollution (CO2, particulates and that old-timey favorites, NOx and SOx).

3. The easier and cheaper it is for people to drive to work in congested urban areas, the more they’re likely to do it. Charging a congestion fee (translation: toll) for using main arteries into the urban core and higher peak-time parking rates will help people understand (and pay for) the true costs of driving to work.

4. Bush Administration officialshave allied themselves with the enviros on this concept, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is.

5. The administration has picked San Francisco as one of the proving grounds for this idea. San Francisco needs a new Doyle Drive viaduct leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, so let’s charge this newfangled congestion fee for bridge users.

As the column by Dick Spotswood explains, this line of thinking impacts one group of commuters disproportionately more than any other:

A Doyle Drive toll is a commuter tax. Worse, it’s a tax that will only be levied on North Bay motorists.

No corresponding toll is planned to pay for the Bay Bridge’s new approach in the city used by East Bay commuters.

Nor would the toll be levied on those San Franciscans traveling on Doyle Drive from the Marina to the Richmond District.

And here’s something else to think about: Those other folks, especially those traveling from the East Bay to San Francisco, have the option of squeezing onto BART in addition to the buses and ferries enjoyed by North Bay commuters.

Right now, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the San Francisco transportation people are hoping that the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which collects and spends the current tolls on the bridge, will agree to collect another one or two bucks from bridge users.

The only other way to do that would be to get state legislative dispensation and set up separate electronic toll collection facilities. At the moment, the Golden Gate people are mulling the idea.

If such a charge were levied on the Bay Bridge, which has seen tolls quadruple since the Loma Prieta Earthquake, I wouldn’t bet my FasTrak transponder that it would be greeted with such enthusiasm by the members of the MTC.

Still, ordinary logic would seem to dictate that if you want to levy a congestion charge, it ought to be done first on the people who are most likely to avoid the congestion. 

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9 Responses to “Marin County, the toll rings for thee”

  1. South Bay Resident Says:

    I can think of one way pay for the Doyle drive replacement that would be fair to all. Currently the Golden Gate Bridge District makes $84.7 million off the bridge tolls of which it spends $58.4 million to maintain and operate the bridge. This leaves a juicy $26.3 million which is currently used to subsidize fares on the buses and ferries. As it turns out, this $26 million per year would be enough to repay bonds sufficient to complete the project (which is being half funded by the state no matter what happens).

    Doubtless there would be more congestion, although since only about 10,000 people use it on a typical day, it might not be that much. The question is how many people be willing to pay enough to get around it to make GGT self-supporting?

  2. Guy Span Says:

    I have tried really hard to understand the following, but it still makes no sense to me whatsoever:

    “Still, ordinary logic would seem to dictate that if you want to levy a congestion charge, it ought to be done first on the people who are most likely to avoid the congestion.”

    Excuse me. Let’s tax the folks most likely to go away, when we should be taxing the folks most likely to pay or perhaps re-think their commute experience. The ones who go away (either because they can’t afford their job in city or because you have made transit cheap enough to use) are on the edge.

    Sorry. This is nonsensical and doesn’t appear to help.

  3. miked Says:

    Who you want to tax should depend on your policy goal. If you want to raise revenue to complete a particular project, then you should tax people on something they are unlikely to change. If you want to stop congestion, then you should tax people who are likely to change.

    Good policy for San Francisco should seek to do some of both. Some revenue should be raised to maintain the pricing system and raise necessary revenue for retrofits, while some people should move to transit as a result of incentives.

    It seems to me that this sort of thinking would suggest not only a toll on Doyle Drive, but also on the Downtown exits I-80 in the city and maybe a downtown zone like the London Congestion Charge.

  4. Reedman Says:

    A couple of questions: 1. Assuming the GGBHTD doesn’t spend money on retiring bonds for building the GG bridge, what does it spend $50 million a year on? 2. What is the anticipated cost of this Doyle Drive proposal? 3. Should we use the Bay Bridge ‘multiplier’
    to translate from estimated cost to actual cost?

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Guy, you’re right, thanks to my poor composition skills. What I meant to say was, “if you want to levy a congestion charge, it ought to be done first on the people who are most (ABLE) to avoid the congestion,” once faced with the charge. I.e., the people who have a wider choice of options, including a rapid transit system under the bay.

  6. Guy Span Says:

    Erik: Thank you for the kind words. But you did indeed have a point which I missed entirely. We have to skim the “cream” off of the Golden Gate Bridge and get them on transit, either buses or ferries. Unfortunately, this makes room for county residents north of Marin to afford homes and commuting.

    One solution is another problem. It’s exactly the same as fixing “choke points” on highways. You fix one and merely move the “choke point” to a further direction.

    Just the same, we may move commuters to transit and their space is taken up by others who don’t care. If it were an easy problem to solve, we would have been there.

  7. Michael Krueger Says:

    I do not agree with the claim that congestion charging is like moving a choke point on the freeway. If it is done correctly, congestion charging is one of the few things that can actually reduce traffic congestion.

    First of all, you need to address the economic fairness argument by allocating the congestion charge money for increased public transit serving the same area, as is being done in London. This guarantees travel options for those unable or unwilling to pay the charge. Once that is in place, you simply keep raising the charge until you eliminate enough congestion to achieve maximum traffic flow. If the roads ever become underutilized, you just lower the charge until the flow is maximized again.

    As for the argument about BART, the need for a separate right of way is greatly diminished if the congestion is being managed properly. In that case, the buses will be running in freely flowing traffic, offering commuters a way to avoid the congestion charge without paying a time penalty. This principle has allowed London to relieve overcrowding in its underground rail transit system by shifting some commuters onto buses, which are now able to travel faster despite the fact that they share the streets with cars.

    Now that we have the technology to collect congestion charges, the TECHNICAL side of the urban congestion problem is relatively easy to solve. However, the POLITICAL side of the problem is incredibly difficult to solve, because many people seem to believe that their right to drive and park for free is written into the Constitution.

  8. Reedman Says:

    If you charge $10 to drive the GG bridge, do people have a rational alternative? If a one hour car trip is competing with a two hour ferry/bus trip, most people I know value their time sufficiently high that they will keep driving. Especially since the ferry and/or bus will likely cost about the same $10. I don’t think that people have the options of ‘not commuting’ or ‘moving’.

  9. Michael Krueger Says:

    Well, if you set the charge at $10 and so many people “value their time sufficiently high that they will keep driving,” then raise it to $15. If the bridge is still clogged, then raise it to $20. Eventually you will empirically determine exactly how much the average North Bay commuter’s time is worth.

    Ideally, in order to give people another option besides carpooling and transit, you should institute charges that vary with the time of day. This would allow people to save money by shifting their trips to off-peak times, thereby making even better use of limited road space. In fact, the congestion charge should drop to zero at times of day where there is no congestion.

    With bridge tolls at their current level, they function more as a tax than a congestion charge, because they are not high enough to ensure a congestion-free commute. As it stands, the tolls cover bridge maintenance and fund transit alternatives. If true congestion charging were instituted, drivers would gain a real time benefit in exchange for their money, and bus riders would also enjoy a speedier commute thanks to reduced congestion.

    If the idea of letting the market determine the value of scarce road space is not palatable to people, then do nothing and let the congestion stand as it is. That way people will pay indirectly with their time spent sitting in traffic instead of directly at the (possibly virtual) toll booth.

    The biggest waste of all would be to continue spending taxpayer dollars to widen the roads, because this would simply allow growth to push further north until the widened roads clog up again.

    The beauty of the congestion charge is that additional growth will never clog the roads; if that starts to happen, the price is simply raised until everything balances out. People will then be forced to weigh the cost of a congestion-free drive-alone commute against the lure of cheap housing in the hinterlands. They can still have those big houses in middle of nowhere, as long as they’re willing to pay. If they choose houses near established bus lines or ferry terminals instead, it will save them money and keep their cars off the roads.

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