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Tolling Points

Bay Area Voters Combat Epic Congestion with Modest Toll Increase

By: 
Bill Cramer

Voters in the San Francisco Bay Area have set their community on a path to reduce traffic gridlock and deliver safer, more reliable mobility with a solid, 54% to 45% vote in favor of higher tolls on local bridges.

While the ballot measure last week received less news coverage than state election primaries that took place the same day, its impact might ultimately be more profound and longer-lasting.

The toll increase adds up to just $3 over the next six years, although the Mercury News says there may be further fees in the offing. But the positive impacts will be in the billions of dollars, as planners begin charting a course out of epic congestion across a sprawling metropolitan region.

“As more residents move farther away in search of affordable housing, they’re driving longer distances to continue working here, leading to worsening commutes, air quality, and quality of life—a trend that’s putting more pressure on the Bay Area’s major highways and packing [Bay Area Rapid Transit] cars to the brim,” the paper notes.

“With how many people are moving here and how many people are living here, we’ve got to do something or we’ll just crumble,” said Oakland resident Judith Shahvar. “People are already getting more and more frustrated.”

Big Plans Ahead

The Bay Area Council was one of three organizations that led the campaign for the fare increase. Its president and CEO, Jim Wunderman, cast the big win as just one step in a bigger investment strategy.

“The really big projects are going to be way more expensive,” he told the Mercury News. “And they aren’t likely to be things that Washington or even Sacramento will pay for, in whole or in part.”

One multi-billion-dollar “mega-measure” calls for fixes to all the various causes of the region’s epic congestion, which increased 84% between 2010 and 2016. One component could be “a vast network of toll lanes ringing the bay and radiating to the north, east, and south,” the Mercury News reported late last year. “They would run parallel to or even share lanes with buses. In turn, those buses, which will one day likely be autonomous, would cruise along at much faster speeds because they would be separated from single-occupancy cars.”

The coverage of that big plan showed that the conversation started exactly where it should—with the community’s needs, and regional agencies’ accountability to the people they serve.

“People are wasting hours of their life in traffic,” Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of urban planning think tank SPUR, said at the time. “Conversations started all over the Bay Area asking the question, can we do something at a bigger scale than we’ve done before? Big enough to actually solve the problem? Big enough to actually get us a different regional transportation system than we have today?”

Paying for What You Use

With their courageous vote last week to do the right thing, Bay Area residents recognized one of the most obvious cornerstones of a successful highway infrastructure program: that roads only work, supply and demand only balance out, and multiple modes can do a much better job of integrating when users pay for what they use.

The numbers behind the Bay Area vote point to two other important lessons: That we can achieve great things when we invest together as a community, and many hands make light work. San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding communities are on the verge of solving a tough, monumental challenge, with a toll increase of just $3 over six years. The voters smart move shows why so many more cities and states are looking to tolling as a local funding and financing solution.

Get the facts on funding and financing solutions for surface transportation. Register now to attend IBTTA’s Summit on Finance & Policy, July 22-24, 2018 in Portland, OR.