Despite decades of efforts to widen highways and move people from cars to transit, the Bay Area continues to strangle itself in congestion. An economic slowdown and rising gas prices might temporarily loosen the flow on the roads. But the trends are in the wrong direction:
There are many reasons for this. In our quest for affordable single-family homes, we're moving farther from our jobs. The growth in the suburbs means more people are dependent on automobiles for trips that, in urban areas, would be within walking distance or a quick bus ride. Automobile travel, despite increasing gas prices, is still cheap enough that most will jump in their cars rather than wait for a bus or train.
Simply put, we're failing in our effort to get people out of their cars. We're part of a state and a nation struggling to find a way off the road to self-destruction. Gov. Schwarzenegger is calling for cutting carbon dioxide and other gases by about 25 percent by 2020. That would require a major shift in our travel habits.
To push people out of their cars, we need to make driving more expensive and public transit cheaper. It sounds brutal, especially for people in the suburbs, where public transit is woefully inadequate.
Thus far, we lack the political will. We're married to our cars. Few politicians are willing to propose gas tax increases. Fewer are willing to suggest that more of those funds should go to subsidize public transit.
That became clear when a congressional commission in January released a study on the state of our nation's transportation system. The 12-member commission was comprised of government transportation officials, academics and members of the business community. Nine of them agreed on the final, timid report. The three dissenters, including President Bush's transportation secretary, Mary Peters, thought it went too far.
The report had some laudable ideas. Most notably, the majority recommended a move toward "congestion pricing," charging drivers to use interstates during rush hour. The idea is to encourage travelers to use the roads during off-peak hours -- to more efficiently distribute the traffic load.
The report also recommended increasing the federal gas tax by 5 to 8 cents a gallon in each of the next five years and, after that, increasing it annually to keep up with inflation. The tax hasn't been raised since 1993, so inflation has eroded its value. Indeed, the same principle applies to the state gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1990.
Raising the gas tax is a good idea. It discourages driving and the money could be used for road improvements and to subsidize public transit. Politically, the idea is probably dead on arrival. Certainly, no one is going to push for a tax increase during a election season when we're on the edge of a recession and gasoline prices are already surging.
But, once the election's over and the economy rebounds, we should consider it. However, the commission also wants to levy a "ticket tax" on transit and rail passengers. That's a silly idea. Why would we want to charge transit users more when we're trying to encourage people to take buses, subways and trains?
In the Bay Area, public transit fares are already too high. A local bus ride on AC Transit is now $1.75. BART charges $4.50 to ride from Walnut Creek to San Francisco. Average fares on the rail system have increased 26 percent in just over five years. Blame funding cuts. Blame labor and fuel costs. Whatever the cause, we need to find a way to bring down transit fares.
Drivers should contribute. After all, the more people taking public transit, the fewer people in cars, the easier the commute. And we pollute less. Everyone benefits.
Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.