Guest Commentary: YoloTD Board Cuts Future Transit Funds by 60%

Is I-80 “Tolls for transit” argument just greenwashing?

By Alan Hirsch

At the January 9  2024 City Council meeting Mayor Josh Chapman explained he supported the widening of I-80 with a “tolled lane” as it would generate toll revenue that would fund better transit. This seemed to persuade Gloria Partida and cause Donna Neville to hesitate to support a motion for the city to reverse its policy to support the project.

SPECIAL NOTE: Come to Tuesday March 5 Davis City Council Mtg and weigh in on I-80

Chapman claimed this justification for the project after he voted to discount the toll paid to in a way that cut funds available for transit by 60%—favors Tahoe travelers…and has trivial public benefit to encourage carpooling and increase efficiency in of use of the new lane.

The laissez-faire culture of the board is indicated by the fact they only spent 16 ½ minutes to approve the Caltrans I-80 plan—time split between reviewing the 1000+ page Draft EIR and then choosing the toll discount plan.

YoloTD choice of I-80 Alternative 4a Cuts Revenue available for Transit by 60%. YoloTD board choose Alt 4a (3 ride free in toll lane) vs alternative 5a (Express lane, everyone pays). As table show this means 60% less toll revenue for VMT/GHG offset programs aka Transit and Microtransit, and social equity ($ 9.6m vs $23.8m/yr.). It also means other drivers will pay a higher toll on managed lanes as there is less remaining lane capacity to be auctioned off to less-than 3-in-a-car users of the causeway. Source: YoloTD board agenda 12-11-23 slide #20

I-80’s Deal with Devil Threatens Transit.

There are many problems with this logic of the Faustian bargain to widen the freeway to fund more bus and rail service. The first being the construction of the widening project is not fully funded, so to complete the highway project Yolo County would need to prioritize and get state and federal grants for the $200 to $300mil in missing funds instead of grants for transit capital up grants. Then there is the issue of how to guarantee—into perpetually—funds for the required VMT mitigation program. Yolo County has to find at least $50m/year—(4x Yolobus’ current funding). Even if the mitigation plan can be funded it offsets just 30% of increased GHG/VMT generated by the new lane. So, as Councilmember Will Arnold pointed on at the 1/9/24  council meeting the I-80 plan is a rejection of the state’s climate plan.  Expect a challenge in court.

But even if you accept this Faustian logic of “tolls for transit,” one still has to grapple with YoloTD board decision to discount tolls in a way revenue generated is 60% less. (see table)

What happened was—without comment—the YoloTD board voted to accept staff recommendation of Caltrans’ (DEIR) alternative 4a (vs Alt 5a)—i.e. “3+  in a car drive free in the new toll lane vs plan where everyone pays.”  This was done despite Caltrans’ own figures indicating toll lane “discounts” for car poolers create little travel behavior charge.  Caltrans I-80 CMCP corridor wide study (pg. 95) shows it at most increases vehicle occupancy by 3% (see table 5.3 below).  And, given congestion on the causeway is caused by peak Tahoe traffic, and these 3+ cars are more likely to be family or groups. This effectively give a preferences discretionary to Tahoe trips over other necessity travel by Yolo County residents.

The laissez-faire culture of the board is indicated by fact they only spent 16 ½ minutes to approve the Caltrans I-80 plan—time split between both reviewing the 1000+ page Draft EIR and then choosing the toll discount plan.  If you watch the Yolo TD 12/11/23 meeting video (begin 1:25) you will see none of this was discussed when the board simply accepted the proposal by staff without question.  The board was so uncritical it took at face value a slide bullet point (slide 22) where the 4A alternative would “move more people” even though it was cut into for improved transit service an amount equivalent to the total current budget of Yolobus.

They were even informed their vote was important: At  video time stamp  1:28:30 in the meeting it was acknowledged by Autumn Bernstein that  YoloTD had a final veto power on the project, as they control the funding.

Maybe the most chartable way to understand this is to frame it as either  “confirmation bias” or they so much want the project to move ahead they were afraid to ask question what might uncover issues.

Tolls Paid on the Honor System

The toll-free use of a lane for 3+ car poolers also sets up enforcement issues: YoloTD executive director has stated that enforcement to make sure those claiming 3 or more in a car is unenforceable. She described it as “the honor system” in an interview on KDRT radio on 12/25/23 (time stamp 20 :00). And with tolls likely to be $10 or more at peak hour, it being legal to 100% tint back windows, and it is almost impossible to see if a back-seat infant carrier is occupied, expect a lot of people gaming the system.

YoloTD staff also have not made it widely known the high cost of use of the toll lanes.  Likely $1/mile for this 17-mile project at peak congestion times in EIR according to Bernstein on KDRT radio show.  And if the new capacity is given “free” to 3+ carpools, that will be dramatically lower “extra” capacity to be auction off to other drivers—so their tolls will actually be higher. This brings into question the YoloTD survey of public opinion on the different I-80 alternatives—is it valid if toll levels and toll difference were not shared with public before the opined in?  One can see how public input could be manipulated to by showing/hiding information if that is the intent.

Caltrans’ own Table 5.3: Less 3% increase car occupancy increase if carpoolers are allowed drive free in toll lane. Allowing Car Pooler Toll Free use of Managed Lane makes a trivial difference in number of car-pools. Compare in table 5.3 the “average people per car” of “existing” and “no build” scenarios vs Scenarios 2 & 3 column (HOT2+ and HOT3+ proposed for Yolo80). The increased carpooling is at most 3% higher vehicle occupancy. Source Caltrans full I-80 study: CMCP table 5.3 pdf page 95 https://dot.ca.gov/-/media/dot-media/district-3/documents/i80-cmcp/update_final_i80_cmcp_comprehensive_multimodal_corridor_plan_.pdf

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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