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Bridge traffic down, carpools up

Submitted by News Desk on Tue, 05/06/2008 - 11:33am

The Bay Area's toll bridge traffic — a key indicator of area commuting patterns — is declining, and this time it's not because of job loss, as it was when the dot-com bubble burst.

Transportation officials say they know that because the drop in car crossings is accompanied by an increase in carpool traffic — 5.3 percent on the Bay Bridge over the nine months ending in March — as well as a continuing increase in public transportation ridership.

"Job formation in the Bay Area is reasonably good," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which governs the area's seven state-owned toll bridges. The Golden Gate has a separate governing authority.

In the past, events such as the collapse of the MacArthur Maze in April 2007 or the 3½-day closure of the Bay Bridge over Labor Day weekend have rallied solo car commuters to find other ways to get to work temporarily.

"What usually doesn't happen is that wholesale shift, as in, 'I'm now a bus rider,'" said Rentschler, whose agency runs the bridges as the Bay Area Toll Authority.

Toll-paying, non-carpool traffic on all seven authority-run bridges declined 2 percent over the nine months ending in March, the same rate as the Bay Bridge alone.

Some of those deciding not to drive across the Bay Bridge apparently took BART instead. Weekday train ridership on BART's Transbay Tube between Oakland and San Francisco was 4.3 percent higher in March than the same month a year ago. An average of 167,791 people per weekday rode the tube in March — an increase of 6,937 people a day.

"We think many of those nearly 7,000 extra riders a day on BART were people who used to drive across the bridge," said BART spokesman Luna Salaver. "Who can blame them with the price of gas?"

High gas prices are certainly a factor for Fremont resident Luis Reyes, who started carpooling last year across the Dumbarton Bridge with his wife, Adriana Pulido.

"Gasoline's expensive, especially now that it's $4 a gallon," he said, but the couple, who both work in Redwood City, were also worried about tolls and wear-and-tear on their vehicles.

Transportation officials, while encouraging carpooling, have had trouble getting more than a tiny percentage of commuters to buy into the idea.

In an entire year, the MTC's 511 Rideshare program might help organize three to five new van pools, said program spokesman Kit Powis.

"In March, we actually had nine, which is a big jump," Powis said. "It's definitely an eye-opener, as far as people looking at different forms of commuting."

Even AC Transit, whose western Contra Costa and Alameda county ridership has been generally weak, has seen increases in several of its transbay bus routes, said agency spokesman Clarence Johnson.

While most officials and experts agree that gas prices are the primary motivator for the shift, it still seems curious to urban transportation researcher Aaron Golub of Arizona State University.

"Gas prices have reached the point at which people are beginning to take notice," Golub said. "Three dollars wasn't enough, but $4 is, even though gas is only a small portion of the operating cost of a vehicle," or less than half of the 50 cents a mile it costs to operate the average passenger vehicle.