Hike in Bay Bridge toll upsets San Francisco commuter culture

The Bay Bridge in San Francisco to Oakland, Calif.

by April Dembosky

There's a set of unspoken rules when it comes to the casual carpool in the San Francisco Bay Area. No talking unless the driver initiates it, no exchange of money, airwaves tuned to public radio.

But this morning, the quiet commuter culture was disrupted by a financial negotiation. After more than two decades of carpoolers crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco for free, they will now be charged $2.50 per car. The hike affects all seven of the area's state-owned bridges, and the privately owned Golden Gate bridge, where carpoolers will be charged $3. Individual drivers will now pay $1 to $2 more during rush hour on all bridges, up from $4.

"The gas tax is running out of steam," said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank. "There's a big move toward more use of tolls around the country, especially in states of high population and growth."

About 113 million toll paying vehicles cross Bay Area bridges every year.

Revenues from the increased tolls will cover the $750 million cost of seismic retrofits on two Bay Area bridges.

Some carpoolers are resentful of the cost and fear that it will be a disincentive for ride sharing. Drivers and passengers meeting up in front of a Safeway supermarket in Oakland this morning were divided over who should pay.

"The driver's going to pay it," said driver Brian Cochran, a carpenter. "I can't say, 'What's your name? Paul? Get your wallet, let's have a look at your funds here.' No."

Some passengers waited on the sidewalk with a dollar in hand, willing to chip in if asked. But ultimately, the toll increase is showing that most commuters aren't in it for the cost savings alone.

"For me, I carpool mostly for the time," said driver Beth Wilson, a physician. "Secondly, it makes me feel better about driving a car."

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