Golden Gate Bridge bike/ped toll moves forward

As the Marin IJ reported, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has decided to push forward with studying the cycling and walking toll on the bridge.

The vote was very close, 10-9 in favor. All but one of San Francisco’s representatives, John Moylan (who represents San Francisco’s mayor), voted against studying the toll. All but one of the northern representatives, Marin supervisor Kate Sears, voted for studying the toll. This includes Marin supervisor Judy Arnold and Tiburon mayor Alice Fredericks.

Most of the arguments for the toll, as relayed by people covering the meeting on Twitter, were more that it was important to examine it regardless of whether it’s a good idea, not that the toll itself would yield any non-financial benefits.

One observer on Twitter, John Murphy of Healdsburg, made the point that the toll could have a number of unintended consequences, mostly around trailheads. By email, he argued that recreational cyclists consider the ride from San Francisco to West Marin “junk miles.” A toll would be just one more reason to drive to Marin on weekends, exacerbating tourist traffic on Shoreline Highway and parking around trailheads.

He further made the point that tourist cyclists already often pay into GGBHTD’s pot by taking the Sausalito Ferry back to the City after riding across the bridge. Without Clipper cards, these riders pay the full cash price.

What the old studies said

According to commentary from MCBC on the 2005 proposal (the report itself isn’t available online), the proposed toll would raise somewhere between $600,000 and $1.8 million in 2014 dollars, or roughly between 9 and 27 percent of the five-year shortfall.

Unfortunately, the 1998 report indicated there would be no way to charge the toll except with in-person toll-takers, which would cut significantly into the revenue and cause huge lines to enter the bridge. Murphy, the Healdsburg commentator, pointed out that this would force people to spend more time parked, exacerbating the significant parking crunch.

One more alternative

There is another way to target tourist traffic, of course, one that would target tourists exclusively. Rather than charge people for the opportunity to walk across the bridge, GGBHTD should charge for the opportunity to park at either parking lot, and allow tour bus companies to reserve bus parking spaces for a flat fee. This is part of the strategic financial plan, under item 21.

Already, tourist traffic at the lots can cause backups onto the bridge; charging an appropriate amount for parking would reduce that congestion problem and raise money simultaneously. It would target tourists exclusively and wouldn’t require much more infrastructure than parking meters. It’s an idea that deserves study, rather than one more look at a bike/ped toll.

For now, the toll is not a done deal; it is only being studied. To ensure it doesn’t, write to your representatives who voted for the toll. Let them know there are better ways to raise money.

Yay

Del Norte

Board of Supervisors appointee Gerald D. Cochran

Marin

Supervisor Judy Arnold
Marin cities’ appointee Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks
Board of Supervisors appointee J. Dietrich Stroeh, GGBHTD Second Vice President

Mendocino

Board of Supervisors appointee James C. Eddie, GGBHTD Board President

Napa

Board of Supervisors appointee Barbara L. Pahre

San Francisco

Mayor’s appointee John J. Moylan

Sonoma

Sonoma cities’ appointee Rohnert Park Councilmember Gina Belforte
Supervisor David A. Rabbitt
Board of Supervisors appointee Brian M. Sobel

Nay

Marin

Supervisor Kate Sears

San Francisco

Supervisor London Breed
Supervisor David Campos
Board of Supervisors appointee Dick Grosboll
Board of Supervisors appointee Janet Reilly
Board of Supervisors appointee Dave Snyder
Board of Supervisors appointee Michael Therieault
Supervisor Scott Weiner
Supervisor Norman Yee

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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.

Leverage the Golden Gate Transportation Monopoly

Golden Gate toll plaza // San Francisco // California // USA

photo by d4yw41k3r

You may not realize it, but the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transit District has an effective monopoly* on travel to San Francisco from Marin.  If you take transit, of course, you’re using GGT, but if even if you drive you have a toll to pay.  This gives the district enormous market power to influence the travel decisions made by Marinites, power that it should use for good.

The Marin-San Francisco transportation market has three principal products – driving, bus travel, and ferry travel.  Directly, the car has a $5 round trip toll, the bus has a $6.80 to $16.40 round trip fare, and the ferry has a $9.70 to $11.40 $17.50 round trip fare.  The car also has fuel, insurance, parking, and depreciation costs as well, but none of these are controlled (save parking costs at park-and-ride lots) by the district.

What strikes me about this situation is that the district charges the least for the most high-impact transportation mode, the car.  The negative externalities of car ownership go far, far beyond simply tailpipe pollution: the cost of car storage that get dumped into housing costs through mandatory minimums; the cost of parking lots on the pedestrian environment; the cost to our mental and physical health driving everywhere; the ongoing slaughter of drivers and pedestrians on the roads; and the sheer cost of maintaining the physical infrastructure needed to carry all these cars around.  By charging significantly less for driving than other modes, the district promotes this kind of unsustainable mode choice.

If the toll were increased to $7, making the cheapest bus fare competitive against driving, one would see a significant boost in bus trips from southern Marin.  If the toll money were plowed back into service improvements, the district would create a positive feedback loop, allowing the district to simultaneously discourage driving and provide a better transit product.  Even better, it would allow the district to move towards its goal of 50% farebox recovery, as the increased ridership would bring in more money and the right transit improvements would decrease costs.

The district did explore a congestion pricing scheme a few years ago that would have bumped the toll to $8 during peak hours.  Though I’m sure San Franciscans would have been happy to have fewer suburban drivers on their roads, the plan was dropped because it was seen as an unnecessary tax on drivers.  Hopefully the plan will be revived to help pay for the district’s $87 million Doyle Drive deficit, though given the district’s belief that ferry riders should pay it through a fare increase I don’t hold out hope.

Though this does sound like a plan to sop the driver for the rider, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, the driver can always become a rider, and doing so would likely be better for everyone involved, especially if the bus can become competitive with the car in speed as well as cost.  Second, the drivers that don’t switch will see benefits in traffic and, if enough drivers switch to buses, see a significant decrease in travel time.  Though it would cost more for them to drive, they would get a better product than they had before.

In short, the district needs to examine its pricing schemes as a singular system, not as a set of disconnected fares and tolls, and establish a better balance between driving and riding costs.  Doing so would reap benefits for drivers in the form of less congestion, riders in the form of better transit, Marin in the form of more livable and walkable communities, and San Francisco in the form of less suburbanite traffic.

*Yes, I realize Blue & Gold Fleet operates a ferry, but its round-trip fare is double that of Golden Gate’s and so isn’t terribly important to this discussion.  If we were talking about the transit market in Tiburon, of course, they’d play on center stage.