Reporters, Upset Over Bridge Toll Increase, Get Weird And Whiny

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s transportation planning body and the administrator of bridge tolls, managed a feat very nearly impossible today: They got the Bay Guardian and the Chronicle to agree on something. Namely, writers for both papers hate the idea of increased tolls on the region’s bridges starting on Thursday, especially the congestion pricing scheme on the Bay Bridge.

Jon Carroll of the Chronicle and Sarah Phelan at the Bay Guardian each fired off missives for their respective papers where they decry the new tolls, though for somewhat different reasons.

Carroll writes a fairly tongue-in-cheek column presuming to explain the new toll structure on the Bay Bridge, although it’s clear a couple sentences in he has no interest in explaining anything, only infantilizing and chiding the "Bridge People" for their new toll structure. Throw in some good anti-tax tea bagging, conflation of bridge tolls with the funding of the prison system, Harry Potter-esque names for automated toll tags (FasTrak Fibblecore) that seem to confuse him, several attacks on the pocket-calculator-using corporate-bureaucrat semi-humans at the MTC and a surreal argument that the new tolls will increase the divorce rate, and you’ve got a new high for transportation journalism.

Sorry, Chuck Nevius, yer uppance done came.

Phelan acknowledges her story is a "whine" piece and argues downtown developers don’t pay their fair share. Fair enough. But she then conflates bridge tolls with the proposal to charge a fee for out-of-towners at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Same trap as Carroll with the prisons, implying that bridge tolls are the same as garden visit fees, when they couldn’t be more dissimilar.

She also says she sees "beat-up pick-ups full of work tools and cars full of infant seats and toys" in the lanes next to her driving into work in San Francisco from the East Bay, so new tolls must be taxing the working class. Nevermind this argument isn’t made based on commute data, which shows across the Bay Area that as household income decreases, transit trip rates increase, but it also avoids the tougher question of how the roads she chooses to drive on will be maintained or upgraded for seismic safety. (And c’mon, the Bay Guardian isn’t that hard to get to from the East Bay by transit is it?)

Despite the complaints about the tolls, the increase in toll money is going to make it safer for these same drivers to get where they want to go in their cars. The first $750 million in tolls collected under the new pricing scheme will make the Dunbarton and Antioch Bridges safer, and there are billions of dollars more in seismic retrofits needed for other bridges, let alone the possibility of using the money for cool projects like a bicycle and pedestrian path across the west span of the Bay Bridge.

Randy Rentschler, a spokesperson for the MTC, said he wasn’t surprised by the backlash, though he was shocked the Bay Guardian and the Chronicle agreed on something. "We must have a real talent," he said. "You have to understand how odd that really is."

As for the issues Carroll and Phelan brought up, Rentschler said the MTC will analyze numerous aspects of the tolls and will make changes to them within the year if they are unworkable.

On the issue of whether or not the tolls are user fees or taxes, Rentschler argued they are fees that go back into the maintenance of infrastructure used by the toll payers. "We have to pay for something we use," he said.

As for the reaction against taxes, he offered this cute rhyme, "Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree."

He also noted the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) conducted numerous public meetings about the structure of the fees, whether it would be a simple $1 increase across the board, or whether there would be congestion pricing and carpool tolls.

"The tolls were going to go up to pay for seismic, the issue was how is it going up," he said. As for the visceral public outcry against congestion pricing, he said Americans already pay congestion rates when flying, when booking hotels and when going to the ball park for professional sports.

"Look, congestion pricing is not new," he said. "It may be new to transportation in this particular instance, but it’s
not new in your life."

He also noted the congestion charge might raise less than the flat fee, but the idea was to discourage driving at peak hours (though not to increase divorce rates). "We’re not doing congestion pricing to raise more money. We might raise
less," he said.

He wasn’t buying the regressive tax on the poor angle either. "If you want to get to the issue of social equity, The Bay Bridge has honest travel options. You can take transit," he said.

And the FasTrak Fibblecores?

"It’s fascinating to us," he said.

The name Carroll gave them?

No, he said, why more people don’t use them.

Why don’t more people use them?

"It’s hard to get people to change their behavior," he said. "I’m sure there are many spouses out there that understand this idea."

"I think people are deeply frustrated in a toll track lane, but by the time they break free, they were probably in a line that waited 8 minutes. I think people then get on with their lives, they then forget about it."

"If I had a line of people walking the [toll] line selling FasTrak tages, we’d probably get a lot of sales there and then," he said.

"It’s fascinating to us."

  • Thank you for writing this. But I’d go a step further (don’t want to give the SFGaters too much ammo) and add “useful and needed” next to “cool” when talking about the west span bike/ped extension.

    The bay guardian should have a policy about transit. I know Redmond has a kid that needs to be driven to school some days (thanks SF school district) and it sounds from the video that the author at least car pools, but maybe they can come into work several times a week (or even a month) on transit. And if they started writing personal accounts of the “working class” they see struggling with poor connections and late buses/trains, maybe something will get done.

  • My cost of taking AC Transit or BART across the bay has increased to $6.90/day, more than the new rush hour toll for driving, yet I don’t hear the Chronicle or the Bay Guardian getting into a hissy fit about that.

  • marcos

    @mikesonn, for $150-300m, I can think of a whole lot more “useful and needed” things that the MTC could do with that kind of money than build the west side bike facility.

    Eight stories straight up twelve more to YBI, eight miles long and you’re at the touchdown in Oakland which is five miles from anything.

    On the way home back from the East Bay during most of the year, the treat of two miles incline up twenty stories into the howling wind awaits!

    Guaranteed fun for the whole family.

    -marc

  • This coming from a guy that supports the central subway.

    Ok, marcos, talk to BART about bike access then.

  • Michael Smith

    mikesonn, please do not feed the trolls.

  • marcos

    You all seem to be unquestioningly supporting the approach that spent several million dollars on a failed bike plan strategy that might partially see the light of day after eight years, policy trolls the lot of you all.

    I’d rather see that money spent on an infill BART station at 30th Street, running skeleton overnight BART service, or on innumerable surface street bicycle projects, you know, stuff that would benefit orders of magnitude more people daily.

    -marc

  • Regardless if it is a difficult ride or easy, the access for people to cross without a car or without taking transit is well worth the cost.

    But back to this column, this just proves how invaluable Streetsblog is to the transportation discussion in the bay area. We all know the Chron and Examiner are in the back pockets of drivers, but when the Guardian switches over that leaves this site as the only voice of reason.

  • Alex

    @marc People live on Treasure Island. Right now you can’t even legally walk off the island to go to the. NextBus doesn’t work reliably there because of poor cell phone coverage. What service does exist there no longer provides service to useful facilities like grocery stores (of which there are none on the island). You might not want to bike or walk to Oakland from Yerba Buena, but the ability to at least walk (or, in a pinch, ride) from Treasure Island to Walgreens would be huge.

  • marcos

    @mikesonn, this another case where “just a little paint” can save another huge boondoggle boatload of cash…take a lane.

    -marc

  • marcos

    @Alex, The Redevelopment Agency should be thinking about those necessities before signing off on a redevelopment deal that’s not going to provide any of that but will surely enrich the designated connected beneficiaries.

    There is enough value locked into TI that the SFRA could easily fund such a project.

    Because the project fails miserably the traditional analysis for transit capital projects, first day ridership.

    -marc

  • Hey Marc and Mike,
    Take a breath and please don’t dominate another board with a back and forth here.

  • david vartanoff

    Back when MTC was in the “pretend to listen to constituents” comment period, I sent a detailed and aggressively AB32 compliant tariff plan. In sum, I asked for punitively high tolls for single drivers, NO charge for car poolers 24/7, and no toll revenue for transit agencies not providing service during hours of toll collection (penalize BART for overnight middle finger). I had no illusion that they would adopt the plan, but I some times pretend government entities actually should be responsive to citizen input not accompanied by large payments.

  • mcas

    @Marcos: Actually, the separators connecting the concrete in the bridge are far too large for a bike (and even some scooters) to fit through. It’s like the BART grates on Market Street, but wayyyyy worse. ‘Taking a lane’ with minor paint isn’t an option.

  • Nick

    Hardships upon the working class? Where’s the outrage over residents of the Excelsior and Ingleside being charged an extra $300 a year to take BART from Balboa Park Station into downtown?

    It went from $45 to $70 a month.

  • david vartanoff

    excellent point, Nick. Using April 09 stats,Balboa Park is the highest use non Financial District station in the entire BART system. As such it is precisely SF residents using BART to/from Muni. All one has to do is watch the buses load/unload to see the pattern.

  • K OBrien

    Transit is NOT A REAL OPTION when the commute by transit takes 2.5 TIMES LONGER! Get a clue.

  • patrick

    @K OBrien

    please return to the bridge from whence you came.

  • I wonder if the world ended today??

    Some people in my office are talking about how peak commute hours should be cheaper because those are the people who go everyday and deserve a discount. The off hour people are just tourists and should pay more.

    But they do support charging for car-pool at a reduced rate from single occupancy.

  • marcos

    @mcas, when we’re talking the low nine figures, painting a lane and putting protection over the joints on one lane is a better deal.

    @K OBrien, “Transit is NOT A REAL OPTION when the commute by transit takes 2.5 TIMES LONGER! Get a clue.”

    Seriously.

    The answer here is not to promote autos, but to realize how people behave and adapt transit to meet their needs, a radical concept in a democracy.

    The higher the income, the less likely someone is to spend 4 hours commuting by transit when they can do so in ~1.5 or so by private auto.

    Zoning San Francisco to become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley practically guarantees that we’ll see well heeled tech workers, those not working for Apple or Google with shuttles, having to negotiate the 45 miles back and forth each day. CalTrain is a toy, BART doesn’t get you there, none of it connects well with SamTrans or Valley Transit.

    Troll, Troll, Troll as you might, please don’t piss on my leg and tell me that its raining, transit is only as good as the level of investment in it is sustained.

    -marc

  • Marta

    This headline made my morning. Seriously.

  • David D.

    This reads like a fluff piece written by an MTC schill. The truth is that only about half of the bridge tolls collected go towards bridge maintenance. The remaining portion goes towards a “signature” Bay Bridge span (a causeway with a dinky suspension portion made in China), unplanned seismic improvements (it took 20 years for MTC to figure out not every bridge is seismically safe??), and transit service that may or may not make any difference to most commuters (hello reverse commuters and non-Bay Bridge users!).

    I wrote a detailed letter to the MTC during its farce of a public comment period. It was evident at the time that MTC had no intention of listening to the public, and I’m surprised they even backpedaled on the multi-axle toll (by a “whopping” one year, but otherwise unchanged).

    So why don’t I take BART or AC Transit? Simple! I commute across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. As of today I can pay $5 for toll, about $3.50 in gas, and spend 50 minutes total on my round-trip commute between Berkeley and San Rafael. My alternative is to pay $1.75 each way for BART, another $3.32 each way for Golden Gate Transit, and spend just over 2 hours commuting–all while being limited by the hourly service on Route 42 that stops only sort of close to my office.

    Hmmm. $8.50 for 50 minutes of wasted time vs. $10.14 for 2 hours of wasted time. Let me think about this…! Yeah, driving is still cheaper even with the higher toll, but considering $2.50 of that toll I pay is not going towards any improvements to the bridge I use and certainly not towards a good alternative bus service on the bridge I use, can you see why people like me are upset?

    I am an advocate for alternative transportation, but I am a realist too. Stop apologizing for a series of poor management choices–from failed seismic retrofits to over-budget bridge replacements–and focus on writing about something more important. Like how poor land use decisions in supposedly progressive communities like Marin County effectively force sane people to drive–creating congestion and polluting the environment.

  • patrick

    “transit service that may or may not make any difference to most commuters (hello reverse commuters and non-Bay Bridge users!).”

    BART caries an average of 360,000 people a day, the bay bridge carries about 270,000 cars a day. How do you think traffic would be if all those BART riders drove? There would be so much overflow, that every bridge would be affected, even non-Bay Bridge users would be sitting in long traffic delays.

    I’ll agree that there have been many bad decisions by planners, but nobody can realistically claim transit doesn’t benefit almost every commuter.

    Not to mention that your driving is highly subsidized, and if you had to pay the real costs it would most likely more than double. The gas tax doesn’t even cover the interstate highway system, which is in a poor state of repair, only accounts 1/4 of the national highway system, and of course almost all local roads are built and maintained by property taxes.

  • tommy

    I think the point of the Bay Guardian article was fairness. Richies from Silicon Valley and the Peninsula get to use the excessive autobahn that is 280 for free. While it isn’t needing a replacement like the Bay Bridge, it was super expensive to build in the first place. 101 is also free, and it continues to have widenings, repavings, interchange rebuildings, new overpasses, etc on the Peninsula every year that cost hundreds of millions.

    The fact is that San Francisco is as wealthy as it is because it makes so much money off the sales taxes and property taxes generated thanks to the huge numbers of non-San Franciscans who work here and who visit here. It is more equitable to charge businesses, as well as start charging those who enter from the south, their fair share. And (this goes without saying) spend much more on public transit so that it’s more frequent, extensive, cheaper, requires less transfers, and is a little faster.

    I think the pieces on housing affordability, zoning and city policies that the Bay Guardian has run many times over the years show that the tabloid has sufficient ethical credibility. Let’s us Streetsblog readers try to emerge from our bubble world every once in a while and realize that many workers with kids and low wages just can’t at the present time afford the time loss of taking public transit, but also can’t afford to live near their workplaces.

  • Vacaville Mike

    The toll increases the last few years are totally regressive. Middle and lower income levels are being affected enormously. People who drive long distances, for the most part live far away because they could not afford to buy a home in San Francisco or on the Peninsula. So by increasing the tolls so dramatically in the last ten years they have put a real hardship on folks who are simply trying to live the dream of owning a home. The fat cats from Atherton, Woodside, Palo Alto and San Francisco don’t have to spend a dime, except when they take that occasional drive up to the wine country. Raise taxes???…no way, just increase the fees..I for one would like to find out who and how the people on the toll authority get appointed and who appoints them. Is there anyway we can hold them responsible? And in the end, that 7 billion dollar bridge won’t allow even one more car on it than what we have now. What a sad state of affairs.

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