Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

This week, tolls increased on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in 6 years, to $6 with FasTrak. Though there was some grumbling and a bit of consternation from drivers who now need to deal with a more expensive commute, these cost hikes are no stranger to transit riders, who have faced annual fare increases for over a decade.

A quick look at the discount toll and average discount fare (adjusted for inflation) starts to get at the picture:

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare's increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare’s increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Though it’s obvious from above, the point is best expressed from the ratio of fares-to-toll:

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases despite annual toll hikes.

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases from 2014 through 2018 despite annual toll hikes. That’s because, as fares increase by 5 percent per year, tolls increase $0.25 per year, a percentage increase that gets less each year.

In 1992, the average round-trip bus fare was 1.62 times the discount toll. That ratio reached a high of 2.44 last July 1, when the latest fare increase was made. Now that the tolls have gone up, the ratio has dropped to 2.03, the lowest it’s been in 5 years, but that will be transitory. On July 1, when fares increase another 5 percent, the ratio will head back up again, to 2.14.

If fares continue to increase 5 percent every year, that ratio will continue to widen, even with annual $0.25 toll hikes, to 2.22 in 2018.

Strictly from an equity perspective, this is unjust. Bus riders tend to be lower-income, and so have a more difficult time taking fare hikes, while the opposite tends to be true of drivers. Not only that, but others who can’t drive – those who are blind, albino, elderly, and others – are disproportionately hit by fare hikes.

By pushing away those who have access to the driving alternative, too, the fare hikes render transit more and more into a second-class social welfare service rather than the first-class transportation service it could be.

From a technical perspective, those new drivers adds to congestion at the rush hours, forcing everyone, rider and driver alike, into a slog every morning and night. It’s a terribly inefficient transit system, destroying any advantage of having a freeway. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin all suffer.

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has as its explicit goal that fares should cover at least 25 percent of bus operations and 40 percent of ferry operations. By raising fares regularly, GGBHTD is trying to hit that moving target. Bus ridership has dropped dramatically since 2000 and with it has fallen transportation income, while operating costs have jacked up the price of providing service.

To compensate, GGBHTD has hiked fares every year since 1998, boosting inflation-adjusted fares 82 percent.

The problem is that GGBHTD isn’t thinking like a business, where income is more than just a function of price, and it’s not thinking like a government agency, with broader societal concerns than mere income. The end result is a nonsensical and unjust policy of never-ending fare hikes far beyond inflation and ever-slower commutes.

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

The core technical mission of GGBHTD should be to help prevent congestion in the areas most immediately effected by its policies, namely Central and Southern Marin, and work with the transit and congestion management agencies in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma to prevent or mitigate it in the rest of its commute shed. This would fit with the original founding purpose of Golden Gate Transit, which was to resolve congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge.

To ensure its historic, technical mission is fulfilled, GGBHTD needs to rework its pricing scheme with congestion in mind. This will mean tolls will rise, but not necessarily too much. If fares stay flat or even decrease, that daily congestion toll may not need to rise nearly so much to ensure congestion is alleviated. Physical changes, such as creating carpool lanes on 101 as far as Lombard in San Francisco, will also help mitigate congestion and, therefore, that toll hike.

The core social justice mission for GGBHTD should be to ensure transit is a tool of freedom for the poor and car-free, rather than make this one more way they can’t succeed. This would fit with the original purpose of having Greyhound take up the transit slack once our light rail system was put out of business by GGBHTD.

Yet progress is made in this equally historic social justice mission simply when GGBHTD meets its technical mission, which by necessity will decrease the fare/toll gap. If the district invests the new toll revenue in more frequent bus service and better bus infrastructure, it will elevate raise the prestige and enjoyment of using the bus system.

Finally, GGBHTD’s efforts will increase ridership (and therefore fares), to meet its new mission of keeping fare revenue in sync with operating costs.

The ever-rising gap between fares and tolls is symptomatic of deep dysfunction in the heart of GGBHTD. An obsession with a single metric – revenue – has led to an incredibly inefficient transportation system and caused the district to fail in the missions it was founded to accomplish. Drivers, riders, the poor, the rich – all suffer under this scheme.

*As Golden Gate Transit doesn’t keep historic bus and ferry fares available online, rather just fare increases, this is backwards-calculated from the average cost to travel from the North Bay to San Francisco on bus and ferry. GGT also doesn’t keep historic fare increases available from before 1993.

Options floated for toll hikes on the Bridge

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

At long last, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) will be hiking tolls. While this is a good thing for the North Bay’s transportation system, the rationale shows that GGBHTD still doesn’t understand its opportunities or how to plan for a better transportation system.

The toll hikes are designed to boost revenue to GGBHTD’s coffers to offset the massive debt incurred by rebuilding Doyle Drive. In a sense, this is exactly what the toll was designed to do: offset construction and maintenance expenses associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. In another sense, though, the district is giving up on an opportunity to cut traffic along with raising toll revenue. Nowhere is a demand-based toll in the works, and that means a huge missed opportunity.

Demand-based tolling

A demand-based toll, more commonly known as a congestion charge, sets a price to cross into a particularly congested area with the aim to keep traffic free-flowing within the cordoned area.

San Francisco has explored a few options. Five years ago it tried to work with GGBHTD to establish a demand toll on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was shot down by then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro, who called it a “Marin commuter tax.” (I don’t recall him being so upset about the annual 5 percent transit fare hikes that took its place.)

San Francisco shifted to examine its southern border with San Mateo County but faced pushback there, too. It was clear San Mateo saw this as a punitive measure against its citizens and promised countermeasures, including its own demand toll for San Franciscans commuting to San Mateo. (Given the congestion on 101, however that might have actually been a good thing.)

Since then, The City has studied the usefulness of a cordon just around its downtown, but no action has been taken to implement it.

Market position

As I described almost two years ago, GGBHTD has a transportation monopoly in Transbay travel between San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma, and strong market presence for intra-county travel in Marin and Sonoma. Yet rather than use its position to reduce traffic, as is its secondary mandate, it has chosen to punish transit users for years with 5 percent annual fare hikes and reduced service.

Implementing a demand-based toll would go much further to promote transit usage than marketing studies and start to reduce some of the intractable traffic problems in Marin.

As well, the toll would ease Marin’s traffic-caused CO2 emissions, both by reducing stop-and-go traffic, which is high-emitting, but also raising money to modernize the GGT fleet with more fuel efficient buses.

Ideally, GGBHTD would set out for itself an aim of managing the traffic along the 101 corridor and set its tolls and fares accordingly. Long term, it should start to charge tolls in both directions, in coordination with MTC (which manages the other bridges) with the express aim of reducing traffic congestion in and out of San Francisco. Though MTC has shown an inability to invest in transit wisely, the mere adjustment to tolling would surely boost transit ridership as congestion declines.

But for now…

But for now, GGBHTD isn’t pushing for such a tolling scheme. Instead, it wants to raise tolls across the board for all travel times, not simply the highest-demand times. To that end, it’s laid out four scenarios of how to graduate its toll hikes, 3 of which end with a cash toll of $8, or $7 for FasTrak, and one of which would end in a cash toll of $8, or $6.50 for FasTrak.

For now, with the GGBHTD we have, we should push for Option 4, which will raise $138 million and cover almost all of the district’s $142 million five-year deficit. GGBHTD has tried to balance their books on the backs of transit riders in the past, which is a sure way to depress ridership and push people back onto Highway 101. If we must balance the books, it makes the most sense to balance them with drivers’ toll revenue, as their vehicles do nearly all the wear-and-tear to the Bridge’s infrastructure and who haven’t faced a price hike in years.

GGBHTD must start thinking strategically about its transportation portfolio if it’s going to make any progress on its long-term capital needs and its mandate to reduce congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge through transit. We shouldn’t be pushing to “balance the books” on any of GGBHTD’s customers. It’s not fair to burden drivers or transit riders with the district’s haphazard approach to planning.

The best we can do now is aim for some measure of equity, which is certainly a better plan than none at all.

If you want a comment: The next public meeting is next Wednesday, February 12, 7 pm, at the San Rafael City Council Chambers, 1400 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA. Given the time, a wide range of commuter lines will serve it from the City as well as every line that stops at the Transit Center.

More details are under “How to Comment” on GGBHTD’s toll hike project page.

Originally posted to Vibrant Bay Area.

Two-way tolling on the Golden Gate could ease traffic in Marin

Rising from the pages of Marin’s Greenbrae Corridor studies is an accusatory finger, pointing east. It is not Marin traffic causing the massive backups on Highway 101 in the evening, nor is it really our antiquated freeway design. No, it’s East Bay-San Francisco commuters cutting through our fair county. Fix that, perhaps, and we fix our corridor.

There are two reasons for these commuters to cut through Marin: it’s faster than 880, and it’s free. We can’t really help 880’s congestion, but perhaps we can address the whole “free” part. If people want to cut through our county, maybe we can at least make them pay for the privilege.

We can do this by charging the Bridge toll in both directions. To keep things even, charge half the current toll both ways, so $2.50 heading south and $2.50 heading north. Now that the Bridge District has gone all-electronic, the impact on traffic would be nominal, and the cost of implementation would certainly be less than a new 101-580 interchange.

This, at least, is the base package. Perhaps bridge tolls could go up (slightly) thanks to the heavier northbound traffic, perhaps $2 south and $3 north, to reduce cut-through traffic a little more. Just a few percentage points off could do wonders.

But there are a few extras that could make the system work a little better.

The first: do the same thing for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. While it would cost a bit to switch its toll collection to all-electronic tolling, that would save MTC money in the long run, just as it has for the Golden Gate Bridge District.

The second: charge variable toll rates based on traffic congestion, a structure typically called congestion pricing. Perhaps free-flow pricing would be a better term, because what it really does is ease traffic congestion. It gives people a disincentive to drive during the peak time, when the tolls are high and road space is at a premium, and (in Marin’s case) a disincentive to cut through the county. A quick primer is embedded below. Streetfilms has a quick primer here.

Whatever you call it, with two-way tolling the tolls would rise and fall based on morning and evening traffic conditions, rather than just for morning conditions as the current system would allow today. If tolls rise to, say, $6 round trip, they could also be adjusted asymmetrically: $2 in the morning and $4 in the evening. To sweeten the deal, any new funding might go to congestion mitigation, like that 101-580 interchange, better bus service, etc.

While a 101-580 interchange is necessary if Larkspur Landing is ever to become a walkable neighorhood, for the time being we should regulate our traffic congestion using prices, either fixed or variable based on traffic. In doing so, we would give everyone on the road a smoother trip.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

Mid-Week Links: Halls of Power

Marin County Civic Center

by Amanda Tomlin

Elections

It was a crazy night on Tuesday, if by crazy you mean “everyone stayed home.” Whether or not people had a say, the elections happened anyway and Marin’s incumbents did rather well.

  • Nationally, assemblyman and Woolsey-endorsed successor Jared Huffman ran away with first place in the 2nd District’s first round election. Still undecided is whether the centrist will run against liberal Norm Solomon or conservative Dan Roberts which could decide whether the race is quite difficult or quite easy for the former state assemblyman. (IJ, Press-Democrat)
  • In California, Assemblyman Michael Allen and San Rafael Councilmember Marc Levine beat the rest of the pack to  first and second place in the open primary for the 10th Assembly seat. The Democrat-on-Democrat battle promises to be bruising as both fight over who is more of a Sacramento outsider and genuine local of the North Bay. (Press-Democrat)
  • Marin County Supervisors Katie Rice and Steve Kinsey walked away with clear victories against their opponents, reflecting the prevailing feelings of contentment with the Board, if not the regional agencies it deals with. (IJ)
  • Locally…: Ross rejected the Measure C public safety tax while seeming to settle on three new councilmembers. (IJ) … Belvedere got three new councilmembers and renewed its public safety tax. (IJ) … Voters firmly rejected incumbent Ross Valley Sanitary District board member Marcia Johnson, who supported doubling rates in order for the district to fix its lines faster than once per century. (IJ) … The Ross Valley School District will get its parcel tax hike, which it said it needed to offset state budget cuts. (IJ) … Sausalito will join the Southern Marin Fire Protection District. (Marinscope)

Marin County

  • Hopes are running high that fans of the San Rafael Pacifics will become patrons of downtown businesses given Albert Field’s location only three blocks from Fourth Street. (NBBJ)
  • GGT fares are growing faster than tolls at the Golden Gate Bridge, creating a perverse incentive for people to drive rather than take the bus. Though politically easy, it’s the opposite of what the Bridge District should do. (Streetsblog)
  • Meanwhile, MT is wringing its hands over a 3.6% increase in operating costs, driven mostly by increases in its $16 million contract with GGT to provide local service. They want to renegotiate the contract, but it’s unclear whether GGT will budge. (IJ)
  • San Rafael’s Street Crimes Unit is up for disbandment as the council grapples with ongoing budget deficits. The three-member unit has two retirements this year and the council may not allow the police department to hire replacements. Given the high-profile crime push at the transit center earlier this year, ongoing gang activity in Terra Linda, the Canal, Novato, and the criminal problems downtown, I think this is an instance of eating your seed corn. (Patch)
  • All your transit needs will now be satisfied at the new GGT/MT customer service center at the Bettini Transit Center. GGT will move its customer service center to the center so it can be close to the people who actually use transit. (IJ)
  • Marin’s local agencies and districts should consolidate to avoid duplication of services and save money, according to a Grand Jury report on the subject. The overwhelming approval of fire consolidation in Sausalito this past week is a good start. One former councilmember wants us to go even further. (Patch, Marinscope)
  • A Corte Madera manufacturing company, EO Products, is moving to the Canal after an exhaustive search of the region. The site is near existing transit and within walking distance of much of the immigrant neighborhood. (IJ)
  • A year after Corte Madera Mayor Bob Ravasio and San Rafael Councilmember Damon Connolly got a tour of The Netherlands’ bike infrastructure, sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation, there seems to still be some behind-the-scenes movement towards bicycling. (Planetizen, Bikes Belong)
  • And…: The San Rafael Airport sports complex moves on to the council. (IJ) … Mill Valley approved some condos downtown over the objection of Streamkeepers. (IJ) … Who does the North San Rafael Coalition of Residents really represent? (IJ letter)

The Greater Marin

  • At least one West Sonoman wants the county to sell its western half to Marin. At least we maintain our rural roads, he says, while Sonoma is determined to turn its roads into gravel. In light of a massive road repair deficit and deadlock over taxes, though, who could blame them? (Press-Democrat)
  • The East Bay is working to promote transit-oriented living around its BART stations, something long lacking in the sprawl of the East. Not mentioned are updates to Richmond’s General Plan which attempt to make walkable the notoriously unwalkable city. (New Colonist, City of Richmond)

Mid-Week Links: Build to the Boom


If you have 45 minutes, listen to Chris Leinberger’s presentation in Kansas City about walkable housing development. He makes a strong argument for building more walkable centers for those that want it – exactly the sort of thing Marin and Sonoma are planning around their SMART stations and exactly the way our towns were built a century ago. (SGA)

Marin County

Golden Gate 75th Anniversary Fireworks

Apparently I missed the best fireworks show ever. Happy 75th, GGB.

  • Caltrans has allocated another $112 million to widening Highway 101 between Sonoma and Marin, not quite enough to bridge the $177 million gap in its billion-dollar widening project, duplicating much of SMART’s future service. (NBBJ)
  • Golden Gate Ferry workers went on a surprise strike last Saturday to draw attention to stalled contract negotiations. Terminal attendants want a raise as compensation for new duties they took on after ticket takers were laid off, while sailors and captains want private quarters aboard the ferries, among other complaints. (IJ)
  • The Board of Supervisors spent $75,000 in discretionary funds this quarter on items ranging from high schools to the opera. Where did your Supervisor invest discretionary funds this quarter? (IJ)
  • As expected, Novato will move ahead with its downtown office plan, voting 3-1 to proceed with construction. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Drake’s Bay Oyster Company has been farming oysters in Drake’s Bay for over a century, but the National Park Service may not renew their lease. Though the arguments for and against renewal have revolved around science, the basic question is philosophical – whether a wilderness area should have commerce. (Pacific Sun)
  • A nifty tool developed by the Greenbelt Alliance shows the various greenfield developments on open space. Though it doesn’t seem comprehensive, for what it has it’s quite useful. (Greenbelt Alliance)
  • If your bike was stolen recently, it may be in police custody. Hundreds of bikes were found after SFPD busted up a ring of thieves, and they’ve released pictures of the merchandise. (SFist)

The Greater Marin

  • As it turns out, Marinites aren’t the only ones who value their walkable town centers. Homes in walkable neighborhoods command significantly higher prices than places that are not. Even Des Moines, IA, is getting in on the action. (NYT, Des Moines Register)
  • The explosive growth and new-found prosperity of Washington, DC, is based on childless singles and couples, who each net the District about $6,000 more per year than those with children. (These are the same folks Marin excludes due to density policies.) Now that these singles are getting married, can Washington adapt? (Atlantic Cities)
  • About 25,000 San Franciscans were forced off the road when a handful of people driving private automobiles, with police escort, pushed their way into a street fair on Sunday. The action ended the celebration and opened the way for through traffic. (Examiner.com)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge was never in danger of collapsing on its 50th Anniversary, despite the spooky sight of a bridge flattened by the massive crowd in the middle. (Mercury News)
  • How hard would it be to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge were it done today? Given environmental review, agency oversight, and a more contentious political environment, it’s safe to say it would be tough. (IJ)
  • The tallest building in the West will redefine San Francisco’s skyline and serve as the centerpiece of the new Transbay Terminal. The building was approved over objections from people concerned about shadows. (Chronicle)
  • The sector plan for Santa Rosa’s northern SMART station is coming together nicely, with a great deal of effort to move people away from cars, reconnect the street grid, and apply the kind of density this sort of project can support. Not everyone is happy, however, with Coddington Mall managers especially concerned over new rights-of-way called for in the plan. (Press-Democrat)

Mid-Week Links: Build It and They Will Come

mill valley

Marin County

Well it looks like the other news organizations passed right on by the development news this week, and there’s no transit news to speak of. I suppose, then, these are the highlights from this week’s IJ.

  • The Grady Ranch debacle has reached New Yorker’s ears. The game of telephone, of course, has done wonders for our county’s image as an insular enclave for the granola-munching wealthy. Back in Marin, there is still debate as to whether opponents abused the system or not, or even whether they should be to blame. (NYT, IJ)
  • In the fallout of Grady Ranch, county staff want to create a panel to cut red tape and streamline permitting, and the supervisors seem to be on board. The results likely won’t mean much for developers in incorporated areas, who often need council approval to open a sandwich shop. (IJ)
  • Fully 85% of Marin’s land is protected from development, according to a new Greenbelt Alliance study, the most in any Bay Area county. Only 12.7% of our land is urbanized, and only 0.7% is at risk of development. (IJ)
  • Michael Rock, town manager and public works director of Fairfax, has resigned in order to pursue a position in what I can only presume is the far less interesting Lomita, CA. His last day as manager will be the June 22 budget meeting. (IJ, Fairfax)
  • Sausalito will not rezone a small area of old town for housing development after all. The two parcels in question could have accommodated 18 units of affordable housing but will continue in their role as offices. (IJ)
  • Under pressure from the feds, Novato’s remaining pot dispensary will close, leaving only one dispensary operating in the county. (IJ)
  • The $950 million Highway 101 widening project chugs forward, but the last $177 million hasn’t been found. At least CalTrans still has $20.5 million to repave 8.5 miles of the freeway from Vista Point to Lucky Drive. (Press-Democrat, IJ)
  • A San Rafael native has been enlivening the streetscape of Washington, DC, by playing the violin to passersby from his rowhome’s balcony. (Patch)
  • And…: Fifteen office buildings totalling about 710,000 square are up for sale in Marin. (IJ) … Terrorism, not the threat of bridge collapse, is the reason you can’t walk across the Bridge on its 75th. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC and ABAG have approved Plan Bay Area. It now goes out for environmental review before final approval in April. (SF Chronicle)
  • The San Francisco Bay Area has a surplus of capital looking for new tech start-ups but restrictive housing policies drive up rents, which drive up wages, which inflates start-ups’ costs of doing business, which drives down the number of new start-ups to invest in, and that’s bad for everyone.  (Forbes via Planetizen)
  • The State Senate will vote today on the three-foot passing law, requiring drivers pass bikers with at least three feet of clearance. (Cyclelicious)
  • The neighborhood planning battles of Seattle bear a striking resemblance to the planning issues faced by Marin’s small towns. (Crosscut)
  • Young people are moving away from the car. Has the driver’s seat lost its old magic? (Washington Post)
  • BART’s long-term plans include express trains, better stations, and shorter headways. (Examiner)
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