California's San Francisco Bay Area, a beacon for the world's most ambitious and entrepreneurial, is in some ways a victim of its own success. Decades of regional growth have created a highway and public transportation infrastructure incapable of meeting the demands of commuters.
As a Contra Costa Times editorial recently explained:
"The worsening traffic congestion in the Bay Area is having an increasingly negative impact on the quality of life in the region. The millions of people who commute to work daily lose valuable time, waste gasoline and add to air pollution. Businesses suffer and new enterprises are discouraged from locating in the area, harming the Bay Area economy."
The HOT and rapid over the flip...
The average Bay Area driver spends 39 hours each year stuck in traffic on a regional freeway. Average time spent idling in traffic will rise to 72 hours per year by 2035 if present trends continue. For a host of reasons - including the needless pollution, wasted fuel, and loss of time at work or with family - minimizing congestion should be a priority for regional leaders. And when possible, enticing commuters into a carpooling arrangement or public transportation should be encouraged.
Fortunately, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transportation authority, with input from Bay Area leaders and activists, has crafted an ambitious regional transit plan: Transportation 2035.
One important component of the plan is the development of a network of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in the Bay Area, allowing carpool lanes to turn a profit by permitting single-and-double-occupancy commuters the ability to use the underutilized lanes for a variable fee dependent on traffic at the moment.
Presently, a hodgepodge of carpool lanes appear and disappear throughout the Bay Area's highway grid, forcing carpool drivers to merge into often heavily congested stretches, particularly near intersections. Under the Transportation 2035 plan, 500 miles of carpool lanes would be converted to HOT lanes, while 300 additional miles of HOT lanes would be constructed over the next 25 years. This would help create a smoother commute for carpoolers and newly minted HOT drivers, encouraging elevated carpool usage and reducing congestion in normal lanes. For example, HOT lanes in San Diego increased carpool usage by 53 percent, while HOT lanes in Minneapolis reduced the number of drivers reporting congestion delays by 20 percent.
By generating revenues from willing HOT drivers, the region will have a somewhat reliable source of revenue to work on other transit projects. Some local transportation officials have urged setting aside specific revenues for public transit, and that is a concept worth exploring, but regardless of the exact funding distribution, the region's transportation infrastructure will clearly be strengthened by granting regional control over these HOT revenues.
While some have raised concerns that HOT lanes give wealthy commuters special access - and this is a criticism I take very seriously - I would argue that broad access and equity in services are best achieved with a package of transportation solutions that includes the expansion of longer distance rapid transit bus service throughout key corridors in East Bay and South Bay counties. The most effective and profitable rapid transit routes reaching more inland regions of the Bay Area will have to be implemented along the proposed HOT lane network to provide a reliable enough commute to convince riders to leave their cars at home. There is nothing rapid about gridlock.
Rapid transit buses, which along city streets allow bus commuters to avoid most traffic lights, have been shown to be popular and effective in the Bay Area and should be considered a low-cost solution in areas where a more speedy public transit commute is desired but rail is impractical. A study of a busy seven-city 14-mile Bay Area route by the Federal Transit Administration determined that the rapid transit line reduced end-to-end travel time by an average of 12 minutes, leading to a 21 percent reduction in time previously spent on local service non-rapid bus lines. Ridership across all areas of the corridor increased by 8.5 percent as a result of the rapid transit line, and most significantly, around 19 percent of rapid transit riders previously used a car for their commute along the corridor, a reduction of around 1,100 auto trips per day.
No matter how strained our purse strings, a continued state and federal investment is crucial to shift our society toward a more public transit-friendly future. Perhaps ironically, the HOTtest way to encourage an increase in bus ridership may depend on making it easier to drive to work.
Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi chairs the Commission for Economic Development and is a former Deputy Interior Secretary.