THE WORSENING traffic congestion in the Bay Area is having an increasingly negative impact on the quality of life in the region. The millions of people who commute to work daily lose valuable time, waste gasoline and add to air pollution. Businesses suffer and new enterprises are discouraged from locating in the area, harming the Bay Area economy.

Fortunately, there is a plan that promises to ease traffic congestion and raise revenues needed for transportation improvements. It's a regional $3.7 billion proposal for an 800-mile network of carpool and toll lanes.

The emphasis here is "regional." Too often in the past local transportation agencies have been at odds with each other and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority over which projects to build, how to pay for them and how to distribute funding.

Finally, there is a truly regional approach to Bay Area transportation needs. It calls for more high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes that would be open for carpools, buses and, in some places, for individual motorists willing to pay tolls.

These High Occupancy Toll, or HOT, lanes would have varying rates depending on the level of congestion. They would be collected using FasTrack transponders like the ones now used to collect bridge tolls.


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The problem with much of the HOV lanes in the Bay Area is that they are not continuous. Carpool drivers too often have to merge into regular highly congested lanes in certain areas, particularly intersections of major highways.

Not only do these bottlenecks delay carpool drivers, they are a major hindrance to express buses. If the Bay Area had a continuous network of highways with HOV and HOT lanes, express buses offering monthly passes could operate far more efficiently.

That is particularly true in the outer regions of the Bay Area including most of Contra Costa County and southern Alameda County. A single express bus could take 40 or more cars off the highway.

Funds from the HOT lane tolls would be used to help fund the buses as well as highway improvements.

However, for the transportation plan to work efficiently and effectively, it must be run by a regional authority with the power to collect tolls, operate the network and make final decision on funding projects.

Certainly, local transportation officials should have some input. But they should not have veto power nor be allowed to undermine regional transportation decisions.

That is the philosophy behind Assembly Bill 744, which would empower the MTC to run the regional toll system. On Monday, the measure goes before the Assembly Transportation Committee, which we urge to give it the green light.

MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler is right is pointing out that a regional network of HOV and HOT lanes is needed to ease traffic on the second worst congested area in the nation.

He also is correct in saying that the regional authority, with its representatives from Bay Area counties, should be in control.

But to ameliorate any local angst MTC agreed to create what is calls corridor working groups, which will concentrate on specific high-volume areas such as the Interstate 80 corridor or the I-680 corridor and commits money generated by those corridors will be used in those corridors.

Parochial bickering and restrictive demands need to be put aside if a truly regional network of better highways and improved express bus service are to become realities. Passage of AB744 is an essential first step.