The meltdown opportunity

Post-explosion alt-transportation success should be model for future
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EDITORIAL A few hours after the explosion that melted part of the East Bay approach to the Bay Bridge, Mayor Gavin Newsom was meeting with reporters at the state Democratic convention in San Diego. Yes, he told them, there would be an economic impact from the freeway meltdown. Yes, it would be a hardship for thousands of commuters. "Yes, it's a mess," he told us. "But it's also an opportunity."

Newsom is right - and if he and other regional and state officials are willing to take advantage of that opportunity, it could be a rare chance to shift commute patterns in the Bay Area away from the automobile.

The evidence on the first post-meltdown travel day was encouraging: Extra BART trains were running. Extra ferries were in service. The Muni lines that connect to the ferry terminal (even the star-crossed T line) were more or less on time. And huge numbers of people who normally would have driven their cars to work took mass transit.

Part of that, of course, was due to the decision by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to offer free rides on trains, buses, and ferries. But part of it was because there simply wasn't any other choice: the only option for a lot of East Bay residents who wanted to get into San Francisco without facing a real traffic nightmare was to leave their cars at home.

The new commute won't be a perfect convenience for everyone - but if the state and the counties keep their end of the deal, it won't have to be that bad. In fact, in 1989, when the Loma Prieta quake brought down the Bay Bridge, San Francisco survived just fine. For those few weeks without transbay driving, downtown was remarkably pleasant - the streets weren't clogged with cars, the noise level was down, the air was cleaner, and pedestrians and bicyclists didn't have to fear for their lives.

Meanwhile, the business of the city went on; people adapted; and when the bridge reopened, they got right back in their cars.

That's what has to change this time around.

For starters, Newsom and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums ought to convene a summit on reducing car traffic and set a firm goal of, say, a permanent 25 percent reduction in auto traffic on the Bay Bridge. That would involve major, lasting improvements in regional transit: The number of ferries, now at double the normal capacity, would have to remain high, and fares would have to be kept low enough to be competitive with driving. BART would also have to increase capacity, and Muni would have to run more busses to take people quickly from BART terminals to other parts of town.

That's going to cost some money, in part because the East Bay-to-San Francisco ferries are privately owned and won't carry passengers free or at reduced fares unless the state is going to keep ponying up money - which is a good reason for the legislature to look at creating public ferries for the long term.

But compared to the costs of continued congestion and the impact on global climate change that come from all these cars, it's too good a deal to pass up.

San Francisco city planners tend to look at ways to accommodate more cars as the city grows. Newsom and Dellums, along with other Bay Area officials, need to derail that assumption and use this opportunity to make permanent reductions in car use. *