From free to fee: Charge takes toll on SF Bay Bridge carpools

With their free rides now gone, carpoolers are becoming a  rarer sight on the Bay Bridge.

The number of trips made by carpooling vehicles has shrunk by 26 percent since a $2.50 toll was introduced on the Bay Bridge in 2010, ending the longtime policy that allowed cars with three or more passengers to cross for free.

Click on the photo at right to see changes in traffic since the toll was introduced.

The carpool toll is levied during the morning and evening commute times. It was introduced in conjunction with another toll that charged motorists $2 extra — on top of a $4 regular fee — to travel on the Bay Bridge during peak times.

Between July 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011, 12,535 carpoolers were recorded on the Bay Bridge, 4,365 fewer than the year prior, according to new statistics from the Bay Area Toll Authority, which manages seven regional spans, not including the Golden Gate Bridge.

Participants in the Bay Area’s Casual Carpool system, an informal network where motorists and passengers meet at specific locations to take advantage of carpooling discounts, gave varying responses to the effect of the new toll.
Amit Talwar and Gil Navarro, who travel daily to The City from El Sobrante and Hercules, respectively, said rides have become scarcer in the past year, particularly on the trek back to the East Bay.

But Marlon Smith, a Richmond resident, said nothing has changed since the new toll.

“I never wait longer than five minutes for a ride into San Francisco,” said Smith. “It’s still real easy to grab a ride.”

Toll authority officials have several theories to account for the drop in carpoolers.  

Motorists may have opted to switch over to BART — morning ridership is up 8 percent at the transit agency since the advent of the carpool tolls. Others might be avoiding the toll by driving during off-peak times, such as the early morning and late evening.  

Other explanations for the drop may be more devious. Before the new toll was in place, drive-alone motorists could risk a $381 fine by zipping through the carpool lane on the bridge. Those scofflaws might have artificially increased the number of recorded carpoolers. Now, motorists must purchase  FasTrak transponders to qualify for the carpooling discount, eliminating the option of a free drive.

Toll authority officials are pretty sure the new toll hasn’t converted former carpoolers into drive-alone motorists.

Agency spokesman John Goodwin said if the average carpooling vehicle has three occupants, and all three of those occupants split up and drove alone following the carpool toll introduction, there would be an increase in traffic of 13,000 cars on the span. However, noncarpool traffic on the bridge increased by only 3,000 people.

“There are always a lot of factors in play when it comes to the carpool numbers,” said Goodwin. “It could be the economy, it could be the price of gas. After more than a year of this, we’re still having a tough time figuring out what the effect of the toll is.”

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