New toll may be reducing traffic

Apparently, $2.50 means a lot to Bay Area commuters.

The number of car poolers travelling on Bay Area bridges has dropped by more than 12,000 per day, a 30 percent decrease, since the $2.50 toll began July 1.

The carpool fee was part of a series of toll increases, including a $2 hike to $6 on the Bay Bridge during heavy traffic, that’s projected to raise $165 million for regional infrastructure projects. Previously, car poolers traveled for free on the seven state-owned bridges managed by the Bay Area Toll Authority (the Golden Gate Bridge is not included). To be eligible for the car-pooling rates, which are in effect from 5 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, motorists were required to sign up for FasTrak.

Last year, an average of 40,029 car poolers crossed the toll authority’s bridges every weekday. After the car-pool toll was imposed, that total dropped to 27,903. On the Bay Bridge, one of most heavily used spans in the country, there were 5,350 fewer car-pool vehicles this month, a 29 percent decrease from last year.

That drop did not add to the congestion on the Bay Bridge, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional group that oversees the toll authority.

On average, total traffic on the Bay Bridge during the morning hours decreased from last year by 3,531 vehicles a day, an 8.5 percent drop. Also, the maximum delay on the bridge was slashed from 19 minutes to 10 minutes. Bridge officials credited both drops with the Bay Bridge’s new congestion-­management toll, the $6 charged during the morning and evening commutes.

BART ridership increased slightly this month, with the system serving an extra 1,500 passengers a day during the morning commute, according to spokesman Jim Allison. That total is less than 1 percent of the 160,000 passengers who travel from the East Bay each morning.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission officials gave a number of explanations for the decrease in car poolers, the most obvious being the end of the free rides. The worsening economy — the region saw a 1 percent rise in unemployment during the past year — and a drop in car-pool violators also were cited as reasons for the decline.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger, who presented the traffic statistics at the agency’s board of directors meeting Wednesday, stressed that the data was very preliminary, which makes any trend forecast difficult.

Krista Michell, a Pinole resident who uses the Bay Area’s Casual Carpool network, said the $2.50 toll hasn’t been enough to deter her from car-pooling, but it has brought up other difficulties.

Normally, Michell could hitch a ride from the network’s informal pickup spots in a matter of minutes. Now, it takes up to a half-hour. Also, some drivers ask for a $1 contribution from each passenger, a profitable move if the car is carrying three people.

“People are actually trying to make money off this, which I think is kind of disgusting,” Michell said. “It kind of goes against the whole idea of the car-pooling system.”


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