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Bridge Tolls

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."

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