Motorists driving into San Francisco during the morning rush hour are getting onto the Bay Bridge four minutes faster since July, when a higher toll was imposed during the busiest times, according to a report made Wednesday to bridge operators.
The wait on the westbound approach to the bridge on Interstate 80 from 7 to 8 a.m. dropped from 27 minutes to 23 minutes, a 15 percent decline, since the toll change, reported consultants to a Bay Area Toll Authority committee at a meeting in Oakland.
The toll used to be a flat $4 all day on all seven state bridges in the region. Effective July 1, the Bay Bridge toll was increased to $6 from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays under a plan called congestion pricing. The Bay Bridge toll remains $4 at other times. The toll on the other six state bridges became $5.
The modest time savings may not seem like much to someone caught in the backup to the metering lights, but it indicates the new tolls are having some success in easing congestion on the region's busiest bridge, said officials at the Toll Authority.
"A 15 percent reduction in my opinion is very significant," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Toll Authority, a sister agency to the region's transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "There are not many things that we present to you that produce a 15 percent improvement on a Bay Area transportation network."
Officials said several potential reasons for the change need to be studied, including the unemployment rate and gasoline prices.
However, the reduced travel time in the rush hour is at least partially due to motorists shifting their travel time to a little before 5 a.m. or after 10 a.m. so they can pay the lower toll, said Rod McMillan, the Toll Authority's director of bridge oversight and operations."We see some change in motorists' behavior," he said.
Some drivers also appear to be switching to BART, which picked up ridership slightly since the congestion tolls began, Heminger said.
There were 11,400 fewer carpool users a day -- a 29 percent decline -- on the seven state bridges since July when the Toll Authority started collecting a $2.50 toll from carpools. Previously, carpools paid no toll.
Heminger said they believe some of those carpoolers switched to BART. "If people are using public transit instead of carpools," he said, "that's an environmental plus.
He suggested the number of drivers in the carpool lanes also declined because fewer motorist are trying to illegally use the carpool lane by not having enough occupants inside their vehicles to qualify as a carpool. Carpool lanes are open to vehicles with three occupants on the Bay Bridge and four other bridges; carpools are two occupants on the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges.
When using the carpool lane used to mean a free ride across the bridges, more toll cheaters found it worth the risk that they wouldn't get spotted by a California Highway Patrol officer and ticketed for a violation, McMillan said.