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Bay Area Transportation Officials Weigh Freeway Tolling Plan

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area is holding public meetings for community feedback on a plan to add tolling to the region’s most-crowded freeways to generate new funding for transit and other projects.

Officials in the heavily trafficked San Francisco Bay Area are exploring the idea of freeway tolling as a measure to both discourage driving and fund transit and other transportation improvements.

“I encourage you to think about your commute, sitting in sometimes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and how much you might value having this traffic be a little bit more free flow, getting 20 minutes back, each way, you commute,” Anup Tapase, project manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), told participants on a Nov. 7 virtual public meeting to share ideas and receive feedback from residents.

Nearly 200 people participated in the exercise, which involved MTC officials presenting various commute scenarios comparing today’s options with projected transportation realities in 2035, a future with longer drive times if measures are not taken to remove some vehicles off of the Bay Area’s freeways.

But the move to charge up to 30 cents per mile during peak travel times is not driven purely by traffic congestion. The step is but one of some 35 strategies the MTC has put forward to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Dave Vautin, assistant director for major plans at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Remote work and telecommuting are seen as another tool in the toolbox to remove cars from freeways.

“We see telecommuting as part of the solution when it comes to solving some of our climate challenges. But on its own, not sufficient to solve all of these challenges," Vautin told the meeting participants.

However, freeway tolling could be the most consequential — raising a projected $1 billion a year — and the most impactful for the more than 7.7 million people who live in the Bay Area.

Officials stress that transit would be improved with freeway tolling. The current proposal — which seemed to be supported by the community members participating in the workshop — would divert about 50 percent of the collected revenues to transit improvement projects, which would include more express buses, traveling with greater frequency.

One example offered by the exercise is the trip from Oakland down to Palo Alto, a 65-minute driving trip today, and costing about $19 each way once gas, vehicle wear and bridge tolls are taken into consideration.

In 2035, with freeway pricing, the driving cost climbs to $23, however, with no significant improvement in drive time, say MTC officials.

“This is an example of one of those corridors that is not well served by BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and Caltrain and have high demand,” said Tapase.

“And so the revenues from tolling could be redirected into a new express bus route, operating at 10-minute frequencies,” he offered, adding that if a commuter were able to drive to the express bus stop, the journey would drop from 90 minutes to 65 minutes with a one-seat ride, with the same total fare as today, which is about $10.

“I hope you’re starting to get a feel for what these improvements might be,” Tapase told attendees.

Part of the challenge for improving transportation in the Bay Area — and it’s a challenge experienced by many metros — is land use.

“Our land use is very, very spread out in some parts of the region,” said Tapase. “And there’s improvement that we can see in traffic travel times, if you're not close to the transit stops.”

However, improving transit will have to be a part of any freeway tolling project in order to give travelers options, say officials. Also, a major component of the concept is to remove autos from the highways.

Meeting participants gravitated toward a plan that would direct most funding toward transit improvements, but also one with subsidies and other considerations for low-income residents or drivers with disabilities.

“We’re trying to understand what the best, and most fair, tolling policy should be,” said Tapase.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.