The Coastal Post - October, 1997

Another Transportation Choice

By Joy Dahlgren

Transportation Chair

Marin Conservation League

What happens when the price of something is less than its cost? Often, people use more of it than is good for society as a whole. This has happened with our roads during congested periods.

When drivers are in cars on a congested highway, they are waiting in a line to get through some bottleneck where road capacity is less than demand. Or they are stuck in the line trying to get to a destination before the bottleneck.

Each driver entering a congested highway imposes additional delay on the people behind them in the line. Furthermore, by adding to congestion, each driver also creates higher vehicle emissions than traveling when the road is less congested. Society as a whole would be better off if fewer drivers enter the highway at that time.

So how can we more closely align the cost to the driver with the cost the drive imposes on others? One way is to charge people to use the road when it is in high demand. For example, the new carpool/toll lanes on route 91 in Orange County allow carpoolers to use median lanes at no charge while non-carpooling drivers who do no want to be delayed can pay a toll to use the carpool lanes. The tolls are increased during peak demand, so that the lanes never become crowded. Non-carpooling driver who do not want to pay a toll stay on the regular lanes.

In this system each car using the toll lane is equipped with a transponder, which debits the owner's account when the car enters the toll lanes. A similar system is being tested now on the Carquinez Bridge and soon will be in use on all Bay Area bridges operated by Caltrans.

Experience since the Rt. 91 opened in December, 1995, reveals that most people do not use the toll lanes every day and not all users have high incomes. They have not become "Lexus lanes" as some had feared. Instead, they are used by a wide variety of people when they need to save time. One unexpected group of users are women with children in day care who face stiff penalties for being late to pick up their children. And delay has also been reduced for people on the free lanes.

A study is currently underway to determine the feasibility of using toll lanes in Highway 101 in Sonoma County to provide congestion relief and help finance construction. The environmental benefit of such an approach is that it does not encourage over-consumption of peak period freeway space. A simple sales tax approach does not provide this benefit.

Marin would do well to consider this carpool/toll approach. People could pay a toll or purchase passes to use the carpool lanes, with the toll prices set to guarantee a delay-free ride. People could avoid delay by paying the toll. Enforcement could be handled in the same manner as for carpool lanes. Of course, delay can be avoided by carpooling, traveling at a less congested time, taking mass transit or biking.

Another environmentally sound economic incentive would be an increased gas tax, which provides an incentive to reduce automobile use and to use more fuel-efficient vehicles, thus reducing carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions.

Mechanisms for funding transportation improvements can themselves be tools to limit congestion and the negative environmental impacts of automobile travel.

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