By Heather Mack
California is home to some of the worst traffic in the nation, particularly in the Bay Area, and that’s only one part of our transportation problem. Aging infrastructure, debt-ridden public transportation agencies and an ever-increasing population dominate the discussion on how to grapple with the state’s ways of getting around.
This morning, as The Club hosted another panel discussion on transportation in California, a new plan aimed at curbing congesting and increasing revenues is about to roll out with a series of toll roads planned for the Bay Area. However, the plan has received heavy criticism that the benefits of the pay roads will go to the very people who epitomize congestion conundrums: solo drivers.
Alameda County transportation officials announced Wednesday that toll lanes will premiere on Interstate 680 in September, allowing single-occupancy vehicles the opportunity to buy their way into carpool lanes at a fluctuating rate depending on the flow of traffic. The rate will increase as traffic does, in an effort to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph and discourage people from buying into the lane when it becomes congested.
While congestion decreased during the depths of the recession as fewer people were driving to work, job development has brought the bottlenecking back to usual, exacerbated by the double-edged sword of necessary but obstructive construction projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the traffic is felt hard in California.
As Norma Ortega, interim chief financial officer of Caltrans, pointed out during her October visit to the Club, California’s unique transportation situation requires partnerships with state agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that enable us to pass additional sales tax to fund projects like these. Those very relationships mean that a lot of decisions are made on different levels, so priorities at the local level may differ with the statewide needs.
Will the lanes work, or are they just throwing money at a growing problem? As one reader commented on an article in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Carpool lanes lose their effectiveness as a tool to discourage single occupancy vehicles if they no longer offer the benefit of less congestion.”
Interstate 680 Express Lane will be the first in a series of such thoroughfares the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has planned for the next 25 years, eventually creating an 800-mile regional network of those express lanes that will blanket the Bay Area.
“We’re hoping to bring more reliability into the system by allowing somebody who is not a carpool to buy into the system and know they can get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, “ said Frank Furger to the Chronicle; Furger is the deputy director of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, which will operate the lane.
But some decry the system as a misuse of funds, calling the roads “Lexus Lanes” that only benefit those who can afford it. The plan calls for spending $3.7 billion to create a regional toll-lane network that would convert the existing 400 miles of carpool lanes into toll lanes available to solo drivers. Critics lament that almost 4 billion dollars of our tax money will be spent on constructing these roads, as well as the need for additional CHP patrols to watch for people trying to sneak into the lane without paying.
Another Bay Area resident commented that, despite the claims by transportation officials supporting tolled expressways and high occupancy toll lanes, area residents should be questioning Alameda County and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission about whether converting public right-of-ways to pay-per-use is an equitable way to raise revenue for transportation improvements.
The Club’s October transportation panel sought to identify the primary factors impeding transportation funding. This morning’s worked to answer the question of whether it is possible to increase revenue in the current anti-tax climate. Toll roads are just the beginning.
Stay tuned to this blog for the video of this morning’s event, which was moderated by Norman Mineta, retired U.S. secretary of transportation, and was made possible by the Mineta Transportation Institute.
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