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.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

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

  1. letsgola says:

    Another option would be to collect tolls on the 580 eastbound instead of westbound. The setup now is weirdly punishing for going East Bay to SF via Marin, because you pay twice. If you flip the 580 tolls, each direction pays once (inbound at Golden Gate, outbound at Richmond). OTOH, this would encourage people to cut through Marin in the morning…

  2. Alai says:

    The logic of the current arrangement is that everyone pays to go into the city, and no one pays to go out. That way there’s little incentive to choose one bridge over the other. If you charged $2 in and $4 out, there would be a fairly strong incentive to take the GGB in ($2) and the Bay Bridge out (free). Encouraging counterclockwise travel over clockwise travel doesn’t make much sense to me.

    If all bridges had two-way tolling, that would be a moot point.

  3. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  4. Franz Listen says:

    The premise of Dave’s argument seems to be that some people take the Bay Bridge into SF, but then take the GGB + Richmond San Rafael Bridge on the way out. Let’s call these people “loopers”. The result is too much evening traffic in Marin.

    Since both ways out of SF are free in the evening, this implies that the GGB+ Richmond is the preferred route for loopers when toll prices are equal. Presumably loopers will suffer through the Bay Bridge route in the morning to avoid paying two bridge tolls.

    If we charged half tolls on both the GGB and Richmond on the way out of SF, it would encourage some loopers to take the Bay Bridge home in the evenings. However…… would also mean a lowering of tolls on the GGB and Richmond in the inbound direction. This would encourage some loopers to ditch the Bay Bridge in the morning and to cut through Marin on the way to SF.

    In other words, whatever traffic alleviation this creates in the evening for 101 northbound and Sir Francis Drake eastbound, it will add the same impact to 101 southbound and Sir Francis Drake westbound in the morning.

    For the benefit of shifting traffic around, we’d have to spent a lot of money. Unless I’m not grasping something, it would be a great expense to modify the toll plazas at the GGB and Richmond Bridge to have enough capacity to handle two-way tolling.

    All this effort would be directed at trying to out-think the loopers who, like the mythical Yeti, have not been empirically proven to exist.

    • Traffic is much, much heavier on northbound 101 than southbound. Most of the research into the Greenbrae Corridor problem is that it’s 580 traffic coming from the City.

      The alternative to weighting northbound tolls higher than southbound is to do the opposite and weigh northbound less than southbound. Since GGBHTD is considering a toll hike anyway, why not charge $5 south (same as now) but $1 north?

      The toll plaza doesn’t have much of a queue at this point thanks to all-electronic tolling, and the structure itself overhangs all the lanes, including those heading north. I doubt much reconfiguration is needed, if any at all, at least on the Golden Gate Bridge.

      The reconfiguration of the other toll plazas would require all-electronic tolling, which would likely save money in the long-run while easing congestion. As well, modern toll meters don’t even require people to slow down, so very little reconfiguration would even be necessary. The costs are low, the benefits are potentially quite high.

  5. Franz Listen says:


    During the Greenbrae process, the “loopers” theory was raised by Diane Steinhauser but I don’t recall seeing any hard evidence. Does data exist? Do you have a link to the research?

    The Richmond Bridge has no toll structure in the eastbound direction. There would be some cost to the added electronic tolling infrastructure, which I guess could be a cantilevered structure with overhead sensors and cameras. Not a massive cost, but a project.

    Also, have you considered that some of the solutions proposed during the Greenbrae process that you are echoing mainly involve dumping traffic somewhere else? In order for this two-way toll idea to work, the “loopers” (to the extent they exist) need to pushed onto the Bay Bridge in the evening. Similarly, the proposed 101 to 580 interchange project would shift the traffic problem from northbound 101 in Corte Madera to southbound 101 in San Rafael.

    Neither of the two aforementioned corridors really need the extra pm traffic. I think that some of the concepts from the Greenbrae process were naturally Corte Madera-centric.

    • (Please use the reply functionality where it’s available.)

      Loopers: The significantly higher traffic loads on northbound 101 over southbound 101 can, as far as I can tell, be explained only by having more cars on the road. I suppose it’s possible that southern Marinites are commuting to work in the East Bay, or that non-peak-hour workers are going back home to the East Bay during the evening peak, but the extra cars must come from somewhere. I’ll see if I can find something a bit more definitive than that.

      Spillover: I’d rather see high traffic on freeways than high traffic on surface streets. The projects that TAM recommended to MTC won’t do much to dump traffic elsewhere, aside from the 101/580 interchange you wrote about. Rather, they’re addressing the problem by lowering overall automobile traffic, which would be quite helpful to ease the whole system.

      Yes, the two-way tolling idea would put more strain on the Bay Bridge, but the Bay Bridge has much more potential capacity than the Richmond Bridge. A contraflow bus or HOV-4 lane would likely get well-used, and studies from SPUR have shown that could effectively double the bridge’s capacity. There is much less latent demand in the East Bay-Marin connection.

      A final solution to the traffic problem would involve fixing the source of the problem, which is the Bay Bridge and 880. But, given how far outside Marin that problem lies, we ought to figure out solutions closer to home that have a better chance of succeeding.

      Ideally, we’d have two-way congestion tolling on the Richmond, Bay, and Golden Gate bridges, as well as HOV-4/bus-only lanes on the Bay Bridge, but in the absence of such a comprehensive congestion management plan we ought to do what we can incrementally.

  6. Sprague says:

    You present innovative ideas for improving local congestion. Although a bit off-topic, I would encourage both the GGBHTD and the MTC to also implement toll surcharges on “Spare the Air” days. Since free transit rides were eliminated a few years ago, there is precious little incentive (other than benevolence) for people to ditch their cars on such days. A more dynamic and flexible approach to tolling would also more easily allow the collection of a Spare the Air surcharge.

  7. Jeff says:

    I like your HOV4 lane idea for the bay bridge. But we also need additional alternate transit: like ferry service for Richmond-SF? or to SF from the Sonoma Marina
    Both of these would help Marin’s traffic congestion too and perhaps additional north-bound tolls could help pay for them?

    By the way, the fastTrak lanes on the Martinez bridge work on open lanes. Right? Wouldn’t that be a better setup for the GGB too? If there was 2-way tolling, it would work on all the lanes. I would think the area would be safer without toll-gates to drive through.

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