Would you pay to save time driving the freeways? Would paying a toll to use an express lane seem less painful if you knew it was helping ease freeway traffic congestion for the masses?.
Bay Area residents are getting closer to finding out. A plan to create an 800-mile network of express lanes open to carpools for free and others for a toll easily passed two big hurdles in the last week.
Last Thursday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission – members of city councils and county supervisors from the Bay Area - approved the broad framework for the toll lane network. A sister agency – the Bay Area Toll Authority - would operate the network of High Occupancy Toll lanes in a partnership with Caltrans and county congestion management agencies.
On Monday, the California Assembly Transportation Committee voted 12-1 to approve a bill giving power to the Toll Authorty to create the network and collect tolls from solo drivers with the FasTrak electronic collection system.
In both political arenas, you don’t see politicians jumping up and down to celebrate the coming of the toll lanes. After all, the project still amounts to inviting motorists to reach into their own pockets to pay a toll – which varies depending on traffic levels – for access to a faster ride.
But politicians in the Bay Area and Sacramento seem to be accepting MTC’s view that toll lanes with congestion pricing are an effective and politically palatable way to reduce traffic congestion. The big deal: You don’t have to go to voters to seek a tax increase. Anyone paying the toll does so by choice.
There’s an added bonus that has politicians salivating. If they work as planned, the toll lanes will pay their own way and generate billions of dollars in surplus toll money over 25 years to support public transit or highway efficiency projects. That’s irresistible to elected officials struggling with slashed funding for public transit.
Concerns remain about the toll lanes. Some environmentalists worry the network is just another way of expanding highway capacity instead of building up public transit. The Contra Costa Transportation Authroity wants a requirement that at least half of the surplus toll money goes to public transit in the travel corridor where the money is collected. Some skeptics worry the toll lanes will end up losing money rather than making it. And if that happens, the Toll Authority could end up diverting bridge toll money to make up toll lane losses, some skeptics fear. Others say the express lanes help the rich who can afford the tolls without doing anything for the poor who cannot.
On the other hand, many economists and environmentalits say it’s about time the public pay for a limited resource: space on a freeway.
The Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group, contends tolls with variable congestion pricing should be charged on all Bay Area freeway lanes - not just express ones - so the public starts paying the “full price of operating a car.”
One East Bay lawmaker sees HOT lanes as unpleasant but inevitable.
“I’m not real enthusiastic about the HOT lanes, but I don’t know of other ways as effective in reducing congestion. I wish I did,” said State Sen. Mark Desaulnier, D-Concord. “Congestion pricing works to reduce congestion.”
DeSaulnier said he is likely to “hold his nose” and support the express lanes to ease gridlock in the Bay Area, the region with the second worst traffic congestion in the country.
And what do you think? Are HOT lanes going to help make the Bay Area a better place to live? Or are the toll lanes going to be a mistake that gives government another way to collect lots of money? Share you thoughts below.