Last January the state transportation department (CAL-TRANS) added the Coronado Bridge to its list of eight toll roads that give carpools a discount on crossing fees. Since then, drivers carrying two or more passengers during the morning and afternoon rush hours have been crossing the span for a dime, a savings of 25 cents over the commuter ticket and a half-dollar less than the usual 60-cent toll.
During the first six months of the experiment nearly 800 drivers a day loaded up their cars with co-workers. That didn’t put much of a dent in a morning rush hour jam that reaches 3,400 crossings per hour, but bridge manager Byrd Thysell hoped it would be a start toward slowing the annual eight percent traffic increase. Then Thysell recently got the bad news: in the rumble following June, the number of daily carpoolers dropped to the 600 mark while the commuter traffic kept on climbing.
Thysell and his toll takers hoped that at least 1,500 drivers would be swayed by the savings to fill their empty seats (the average car in San Diego carries 1.2 occupants), and the recently release CALTRANS report put a lid on his optimism. He cited dwindling credibility on the part of the public to claims of an oil shortage, and “people’s love affair with their automobile” as reasons for the poor response to the discount fare. “People just have to starve to death before they’ll get out of their car,” said the bridge manager, who seems convinced that the 20-cent discount (most potential car poolers now use the 35-cent commuter tickets) just isn’t enough of a financial prod.
In the meantime, CALTRANS has been developing other programs to relieve the crowding. Buses have been pushed as an alternative to cars, especially for the thousands of civilians who commute daily to the Navy’s North Island air base. But of the 200 buses daily crossing the bridge, only a handful (ten to twenty) are carrying commuters. Traffic engineers have also tried the novel approach of rigging bike racks to the rear of city buses. That experiment started off by attracting about 70 cyclists a day, though the figure has dwindled to 40 since the novelty wore off.
While Thysell has been concentrating on alleviating the overworked span, which sometimes is snarled with morning traffic that winds from the San Diego side of the bridge all the way back Interstate 5 to the Imperial Avenue off-ramp, CALTRANS is trying to ward off similar problems in other parts of the country. In 1979 the first of a series of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes designed to carry buses and cars with three or more passengers will be opened. The HOV lanes are still referred to by some disgruntled motorists as Diamond Lanes; despite the work of CALTRANS public relations experts who want to put as much distance as possible between the aborted Santa Monica Freeway experiment and their new system. Instead of appropriating existing freeway lanes for use exclusively by multipassenger vehicles, as CALTRANS chief Adriana Gianturco did in Los Angeles, the medium divider will be widened and reserved for the special use. One such freeway-within-a-freeway is now being built on Friars and Balboa Avenue stretch of Interstate 15, with other sections of that freeway and parts of Interstate 805 under construction.
CALTRANS spokesman Jim Larson says similar experiments in San Bernardino and the western seaboard are working well, but he admits their success has come to some degree depended on people’s willingness to carpool. Larson is sure the share-a-ride habit, which has been so diligently avoided by local commuters, will one day take hold, “We just want to provide the option,” he explains, “Some morning people are just going to get tired of watching buses and carpools whiz by.”