Casual carpoolers face toll charges in July
By Heather Lyn Wood
Starting July 1, Alameda carpoolers will lose one of the main benefits of ride-sharing: toll-free passage over the Bay Bridge.
Faced with the 2009 Bay Bridge reconstruction, an ailing state economy and concerns about seismic safety, the Bay Area Toll Authority approved a toll hike package in January of this year. Under the new regulations, a trip down the Bay Bridge’s carpool lane will cost high-occupancy vehicles $2.50.
Other drivers crossing during weekday commute hours (5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m) will owe $6 per trip. During other weekday hours, the toll will remain at $4, rising by an additional dollar on weekends.
Because there are no toll booths in the carpool lanes, any driver wishing to use those lanes will now have to purchase a FasTrak toll tag.
The Bridge’s High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane has been free of charge since March 1975, giving commuters a tangible incentive to form carpools and reduce gridlock. The so-called “casual” carpool, also born in the 1970s, serves commuters who are not committed to a regular ride-sharing arrangement.
The idea is simple: Drivers seeking passengers hook up with passengers seeking rides at known locations throughout the Bay Area. Vehicles with three seats or more must have three passengers to qualify for the carpool lane; two-seaters need only two. Passage through the carpool lanes allows all parties to avoid arduous delays at toll plazas. Drivers never request money from their riders; compensation comes in the form of reduced drive time and, until now, freedom from charge.
Although the casual carpool system is not run by any particular group or organization, it is an organized system with its own set of rules. Participants use an Internet message board to post updates and warn about speeders, texters, music-blarers and other violators of casual carpool etiquette. The majority of drivers and riders treat each other respectfully, grateful for the short, toll-free commute option.
Casual carpooling has a strong foothold in Washington, D.C.; Houston, Texas; and the Bay Area, and enthusiasts in Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich. are trying to sell the concept there as well. Here in the Bay Area, this informal system has organically grown to include 40 pick-up sites, including two in Alameda.
With the implementation date less than two months away, the news has started to sink in among Alameda commuters. Opinions are divided as to whether or not the toll hike will deter drivers from picking up casual carpoolers.
Jeaneth Decena, who works in San Francisco’s Financial District and rides in the casual carpool, believes the system will remain in place.
“There’s an inherent efficiency in that system and I’m sure a new social convention will be formed to address this matter. People will adapt,” Decena said. She is hoping that there will be some kind of discussion forum so that by July, drivers and riders will make the change without awkwardness or dispute.
Decena plans to continue to use the carpool, though she is prepared to alter her routine if necessary.
“If it will cause stress in the morning … then I’ll probably use BART more regularly,” she said.