Bay Area Bridge Toll Congestion Pricing Arrives: Chaos Does Not Ensue

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Tolbooth at the Bay Bridge. Photo by Casey Miner

(Casey Miner, KALW) After months of preparation and public service announcements, on Thursday morning Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority officially debuted congestion pricing on the Bay Area’s bridges. The system, used in several cities around the world but relatively new to the US, sets prices at different levels based on the volume of traffic, rather than a flat rate across the board.

Tolls on all but one of the region’s seven bridges rose to $5; on the Bay Bridge, the toll during peak commute hours – 5am-10am and 3pm-7pm – went to $6. The extra revenue will be used to pay for seismic retrofits on the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges.

It’s a major change, and one that’s required a good deal of planning.

The folks at Caltrans have spent the past several weeks installing clocks above the entrance to the Bay Bridge toll plaza, as well as in all tollbooths, to make sure everyone’s on the same peak-hour page. All toll collectors have also taken a four-hour class on strategies to deal with irate or irrationally angry drivers.

Curious about how things would go the first morning, I made my way down to the Bay Bridge toll plaza at 5am to witness the new system’s inaugural moments. It was cold and just beginning to grow light when I arrived, and the administration building parking lot was packed with media vans. A few feet away on the freeway cars and trucks whizzed by mostly without incident, though within 15 minutes observers reported seeing at least two people back up and switch lanes. (That behavior is, needless to say, discouraged.)

Within an hour it became apparent that the biggest problem wasn't driver confusion; it was exact change. Until Thursday, toll workers told me, they often got $5 bills from cash-paying customers, so they could just hand $1 back. This morning, with the toll up to $6, they were getting $10 bills -- so they needed four times as many $1s. By 7am they had a serious shortage of bills, but seemed to be on top of the situation. As far as I know everyone got the change they needed.

One major repercussion of the changes, and the one that has gotten perhaps the most attention, is the end of the free carpool. Casual carpool – an informal negotiation that matches solo drivers with carless riders to get everyone a free ride across the bridge – has been a Bay Area institution for at least twenty years, and much hand-wringing has surrounded the logistics of splitting the new $2.50 toll three ways. But in crisis there is also opportunity: BART representatives could be found at casual carpool points around the Bay over the past few days handing out free $10-value tickets; the accompanying flyers advised would-be carpoolers that “BART invites you to give our fast, reliable, environmentally-friendly Transbay service a try for your morning commute."

But things seem to have gone smoothly for the carpoolers this morning: an informal survey and quick trip over to the discussion board suggested that many passengers were offering to split the toll, with some drivers accepting and others declining. Traffic also seemed lighter overall; several people I spoke with described the commute as downright pleasant, though things seem to have backed up a bit when the toll went down at 10am. (Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman John Goodwin attributed this to "deceleration"; the Chronicle is reporting that people actually pulled over and waited for the clock to strike 10.)

I'll be keeping tabs on the commute over the next few weeks to see how people settle in to the new system. In the meantime, though, we've been wondering: what is the cheapest way to get into the city these days? Back-of-the-napkin calculations anoint casual carpool the hands-down winner for most commuters*, provided riders chip in (as many appear to be doing). If they don't, they ride for free, but the cost to the driver (toll plus gas) is roughly comparable to transit, depending on the car's gas mileage.  (The cost is for the passage only, and doesn't include the huge costs of the car itself, insurance, parking, and other driving-related fees that wouldn't affect transit riders.)

After casual carpool, BART is next-cheapest -- mostly. Rides from the East Bay to downtown SF range from $2.90 at West Oakland to just under $6 from Pittsburg/Bay Point. AC Transit's Transbay bus is only $4, so depending on where you live that might be the better way to go. The ferry is $6.25.

Until they build an actual bike path, those are the only ways I know of to get to SF. Have others? Let us know!

*There is one other way to get to the city from the East Bay, and that's to take the bike shuttle. Caltrans runs the van service during peak commute hours, when bikes aren't allowed on BART, and it's only $1 each way. The caveats? You need a bike, the shuttle has limited seating, and it only runs four times each morning. As a friend put it, "it's awesome, but it's a fragile awesomeness."