May. 26th, 2018

Regional Measure 3 is the traffic-relief plan that's on the ballot for Bay Area voters this election. The Bay Area is one of the worst regions for traffic in the nation, and RM3 proposes some badly-needed improvements to freeway interchanges, as well as additional public transit infrastructure and services. There's a lot to like about RM3, and much of what it does is worth the cost. However, it has two significant flaws, and one of them, in my view, is fatal.

First, it pays for the required $4.5 billion in bonds with $3 of bridge toll increases over the next seven years (~8%/year on average). The problem with bridge-toll increases, even minor ones, is that they often disproportionately affect low-income people who tend to have longer distances to commute and may therefore need to cross a bridge to reach their job. For them, an extra $3/day can mean the difference between a healthy meal and going hungry.

It's true that the minimum wage in California is going up even more than that over the same period. However, California, and the Bay Area in particular, is already suffering from extreme income inequality, and regardless of what else we may be doing to fix it, increasing bridge tolls is a step in the wrong direction. I would rather see the MTC and BATA work together with the Legislature to pay for this through a regional income tax increase tilted toward higher-income earners. I would even be willing to settle for a property-tax increase, which spreads the burden out over many more people (including those who always take transit and thus rarely drive over a bridge).

The regressive nature of the toll increase is enough on its own for me to vote "no". However, there's another reason: express lanes.

At a emotional level, I don't like them—I think they are fundamentally unfair. I tend to pejoratively call them "capitalism lanes" because they put people who can't pay at a travel-time disadvantage. Even so, if express lanes can measurably improve traffic, I can swallow my sense of justice and accept them, since nobody is forced to pay to use them.

It turns out, however, the MTC's own modeling predicts they will do almost nothing for traffic flow. In their model, the total vehicle-hours traveled barely changes (0.1-0.4% faster during peak times, and 0.2-0.6% slower off-peak). So a 1-hour trip during the evening commute would be shorter by about 1.4 seconds on average. I would get more of my life back by drinking iced mochas instead of hot mochas in the morning (which would save me ~1-2min microwave time).

Any benefit conferred by making more-efficient use of the available HOV lanes seems to be negated by an increase in vehicle-miles traveled (1.7%-2.1% during peak times), meaning more cars on the same pavement. The report doesn't say why overall trips were predicted to increase—it could be because people are traveling who otherwise wouldn't have traveled, or because more people chose to drive solo.

I don't think giving people a way to carpool less or drive more is worth $300 million. I think we should be doing the opposite—providing better transit service to get more people off the road, and adding more lanes to accommodate more vehicles (rich or poor, HOV or no). Express lanes don't meet either of those goals.

The express lanes, by themselves, are not enough to kill RM3 for me. But when you combine them with the regressive impact of bridge tolls, it's a little too much to swallow. All those tiny sales-tax increases, fee increases, etc. cumulatively have a big impact on people who are already at a serious economic disadvantage. We badly need infrastructure improvements, but not at the expense of people who can't afford it.

So, dear legislators, I'd appreciate it if you would raise my taxes instead of my barista's, and maybe quit fiddling with the freeway network's QoS settings?



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