Response #1 to”Bad Call, MTC”

I received a very prompt reply from MTC when I emailed them to complain about the transponder requirement for hybrids. My comments to them were virtually identical to my earlier posting on the subject.

I think it’s only fair to post their response here (along with my rebuttal commentary)

” While I understand your concerns about drivers who do not frequently cross bridges in the Bay Area having an “unnecessary” transponder, I’d like to give you a little bit of MTC’s perspective on this subject.

There was no attempt to “sneak” the paying of the bridge toll into the rules. MTC has always taken the position on AB 2628 that any car – hybrid or not – that does not meet the requisite number of occupants for the carpool exemption should be required to pay the toll. “

Ahhh, the classical institutional rebuke to citizens who don’t pay attention to every little piece of legislation that’s going through the public-decision-making process. MTC’s stand is/was a matter of public record, but I, like many average Janes, don’t read public agency policy meeting packets, even though I am granted that privilege through the Brown Act. Unless/until something makes it to the first 10 pages of the newspaper, I’m not going to find out about it.

“When thinking of why certain positions are established on particular subjects, ask yourself what the point is. The point of the toll is to pay for the bridge – maintenance, seismic retrofit, and now a huge bill looming before the Bay Area for the reconstruction of the east span of the Bay Bridge. In allowing multiple occupancy vehicles to get out of paying the toll, the point has been to create an incentive for people to carpool, thus cutting down on traffic congestion and ultimately pollution. Since hybrids already help to alleviate pollution, the argument was made (and won) that they should have the same perk as carpoolers. However, MTC has a responsibility to protect the debt-pledged toll revenue stream in order to maintain the bridges and build the new Bay Bridge east span. Projects have been planned based on certain projected toll revenues, and the increase in hybrid vehicle drivers as a result of a free bridge toll would impact both toll revenues and carpool lane congestion.”

I dug up some stats to do a very rough back-of-the-envelop calculation as to how much toll revenue would be lost if hybrids got to cross the bridges for free. (This is to provide an order of magnitude. If you are really curious, you may contact me off-line for the sources of the info, all of which I got online from public agencies.)
– Of the 52,000 qualifying hybrids in California, assume 40% of them are in the Bay Area: 20,800 hybrids
-5,950,000 vehicles registered in the Bay Area, so hybrids represent 0.35% of the fleet.
809,000 vehicles pass through tolls daily on all bridges in the Bay Area (except Golden Gate, which is operated and funded differently).
– About 2,800 hybrids pass through bridge tolls daily (Extrapolation: 0.35% of 809,000)
– At $3 for toll, the revenue loss from hybrids that don’t pay toll would be $3.1 million per year
-Current Caltrans estimate of Bay Bridge reconstruction cost: $8 billion.

I’m not sure the loss of $3 million a year is really that big of an impact for the $8 billion budget. But I actually don’t begrudge MTC for trying to retain every little bit of toll revenue for the Bay Bridge project, because given how dire the financial and political situation is for transportation funding, I know there are no other options to MTC to get more money from elsewhere.

“Regarding this second issue of increased congestion in the carpool lanes, in 2000, the state of Virginia initiated a pilot program to open up their carpool lanes to hybrid vehicles until July 2006, despite the contrary provisions in federal law. At that time there were only 32 vehicles in the state with the “clean fuel” tags required for access to the lanes. By October 2004, there were over 5,800 clean fuel vehicles, of which 97 percent were hybrids. Approximately 85 percent of these hybrid vehicles were registered in Northern Virginia. This growth in hybrids has resulted in growing congestion on Virginia’s carpool lanes during the morning commute. According to information provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), during the morning commute, hybrid vehicles now constitute 19 percent of the vehicles in the Interstate 95 carpool lanes and between 6 to 7 percent of the vehicles in the Interstate 395 carpool lanes. Volumes on both freeways now exceed 1,800 vehicles per lane hour, the recommended maximum operating capacity of a carpool lane.

MTC’s goal in requiring the transponder has been to have single occupancy hybrid vehicles utilizing the carpool lane to pay the bridge toll without having to merge in and out of the carpool lane to queue at the tollbooth for cash payment.

This is the crux of the matter, where the public outreach and communication failed in the Bay Area. It wasn’t clear that single-occupant hybrids can use the carpool lanes on bridge approaches, but they still have to pay toll. In the news articles I read, I was under the assumption that single-occupant hybrids could be in the bridges’ carpool lanes AND not have to pay toll. I think if that had been emphasized and explained up front, that would have avoided a lot of confusion and out-cry.

But MTC could have also made it more of a carrot than a stick: rather than “You must”, they should have said “You are strongly recommended to get a transponder, so that if you cross the bridges with only one occupant in the hybrid, you can avoid the delays associated with weaving in and out of the carpool lane to pay toll.” Because again, for the people who don’t usually cross the bridges, they may opt to do that rather than get a transponder. And they should be allowed that choice.

Since you already have a transponder, I won’t bother telling you about the instructions on our Web site. And let me say that I do understand your frustration with the final outcome. I hope that you understand more about the reasons for the decisions made.

And I suspect there will be modifications in the program (as there will no doubt be in Virginia) as things change.

Pam Grove,
MTC Public Information”

On that, I agree. Things will proably not stay the same, and change as hybrids become more popular.

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