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Bill to Raise Bay Area Bridge Tolls to Help Transit Put on Hold Amid Local Opposition

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Aerial shot of cars at a series of toll booths on a bridge, with a $7 toll fee in a digital sign above the booths.
Vehicles cross the toll plaza on the Bay Bridge during the afternoon commute in Oakland on June 26, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Update, Monday, Aug. 21: State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced early Monday he’s “pausing” SB 532, a proposal to impose a $1.50 bridge toll increase to support Bay Area transit agencies facing a fiscal crisis because of pandemic-related ridership losses.

The bill, which would have required a two-thirds majority to pass both houses of the state Legislature, caused a split in the Bay Area’s Assembly and Senate delegations. Seven members joined Wiener as co-authors while half a dozen lawmakers from the region said they opposed the toll increase.

“We’ve been trying to build more consensus within our Bay Area legislative delegation, and it became apparent last week that we did not have enough time to do the consensus building that we needed to do for this bill to be able to pass before the end of session,” Wiener told KQED in an interview Monday.

Wiener said he’ll work with Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City), one of the bill’s opponents, to consider new transit-funding proposals to help Bay Area transit agencies avoid service cuts.

“Assemblymember Wilson and I have committed to each other that we will co-facilitate a process over the fall recess to try to come up with a solution,” Wiener said. “And the fact that I’m the author of this bill and she was a skeptic of the bill, that’s a powerful combination and she’s a very constructive partner. And I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get something done.”

Wilson said in a Monday interview that she recognizes the magnitude of the fiscal crisis facing transit agencies. But she said she opposed the toll increase because of its impact on drivers in her district — which includes Solano County and far eastern Contra Costa County — and because it would deliver little direct benefit to transit agencies there.

Typically, she said, a portion of tolls collected from drivers in a given county is reinvested in that county to support its public transit and other transportation needs. But that wouldn’t have been the case with SB 532.

“With this particular toll, it is need-based, and so it is going to those [transit agencies] that have the highest need currently,” Wilson said. “That’s BART, Muni and AC Transit.”

She said that would mean that residents who currently drive because there are few robust public transit options in their communities would be put in the position of subsidizing agencies to which they have little access.

“So I struggled with that quite a deal,” Wilson said, especially when tolls are already scheduled to increase from $7 to $8 per crossing in January 2025. The toll to help transit would have raised the fee to $9.50 through the end of 2028.

In a statement, Muni spokesperson Erica Kato said the withdrawal of SB 532 was “very disappointing, and it’s a blow to our efforts to maintain Muni service after federal pandemic relief funds run out next year. But we’re going to keep fighting for the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on Muni every single day.”

BART, whose elected board voted to support SB 532 in June, said it anticipates being involved in further discussions with Sen. Wiener and other legislators on funding ideas. Many who opposed the proposed toll increase were critical of the measure because it did not come along with formal guarantees that BART would improve its performance on public safety, cleanliness and fiscal accountability.

“BART will continue to work with legislators on accountability measures in the future,” a BART spokesperson said in an email. “BART staff will continue to offer our assistance to the Senator and other lawmakers as they work to find a consensus solution to this regional issue.”

BART board member Debora Allen, who represents central Contra Costa County, had voted against supporting SB 532. She said the agency and the Legislature need to focus on long-term measures that address not only revenue needs but also deficits that will exceed $300 million a year after 2025.

“I think SB 532 was the wrong approach for funding BART, and I am glad to see it being placed on hold because I think the Legislature and BART need to come together with a comprehensive plan for both funding and reducing spending,” she said.

The Bay Area Council, which has called on BART to make urgent improvements to passenger safety and overall customer experience, also applauded Wiener’s suspension of SB 532.

“We need our transit operators to make the necessary structural changes to bring their operations and budgets in line with both today’s fiscal realities and the tectonic changes that decimated ridership and have kept riders away from our transit systems, including addressing crime, safety and cleanliness,” Jim Wunderman, the council’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “We can’t continue to fund unsustainable transit operations that aren’t meeting the needs of riders for a safe, convenient and seamless commute.”

Original story, Saturday, Aug. 19: Bridge Toll Increase Would Help Transit. How Much Would It Hurt Drivers?

A bill that would impose a $1.50 toll increase on Bay Area bridges to provide emergency funding for BART, Muni and other transit operators has sparked a debate over whether the added charge will fall disproportionately on lower-income commuters already struggling with the region’s high cost of living.

That issue was at the top of a list of concerns raised in a letter last month from seven Bay Area members of Congress (PDF), led by Rep. Mark De Saulnier (D-Walnut Creek), that urged Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders to oppose the bill. The Bay Area Council, a group counting 300 businesses and institutions as members, has also expressed similar displeasure with the toll increase bill, SB 532, by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

“Many employees now have the advantage to do their work from home,” the letter concluded. “There are others, the working people of the Bay Area, that don’t share this advantage, and the proposed toll hike comes straight out of their wallets.”

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But a new analysis from SPUR, a regional planning and public policy think tank, challenges some of the assumptions behind that argument.

In a report (PDF) released this week, SPUR said a study of traffic patterns on the region’s seven state-owned bridges shows that two-thirds of drivers make just one toll crossing a week. That finding would mean those drivers’ weekly exposure to higher tolls would be limited to a single $1.50 charge.

The analysis also found just a small fraction of bridge users — 8% — cross more than one bridge per trip.

And finally, SPUR said a side-by-side comparison of bridge users and BART passengers shows that, in general, those driving over the bridges have significantly higher incomes than people taking the train. At the same time, BART customers are more likely to be traveling to work than those crossing the toll bridges.

Taken as a whole, SPUR says the analysis shows that those who drive across the bridges are more likely to be able to absorb the cost of the higher bridge tolls while lower-income transit users, like those who use BART, would lose out if a lack of funding forces agencies to slash service.

The analysis is based on modeling by Replica, a big-data firm with offices in Oakland that used census, toll payment, cell phone, credit card and other public and private information to create a “synthetic representation” of travel patterns.

Sebastian Petty, transportation policy manager at SPUR, said in an interview he was surprised at the high number of drivers who make a toll crossing just once a week.

“When you’re looking at the bridge and the people driving across it, a lot of those folks are not engaged in their day-to-day commute,” he said. “Certainly many of them are, but it’s not as though, you know, 80 out of 100 cars are doing their day-to-day commute trip. It’s people making regional trips, people making occasional work trips, people going to the airport, people visiting, shopping.”

Petty said the data in the report suggest a number of ways SB 532 could be amended to reduce the impact on lower-income drivers who make more frequent trips across the toll bridges. One way to do that, he said, was to cap the number of weekly toll crossings for which individual drivers would be charged the extra $1.50.

“If you wanted to make sure that you weren’t over cost-burdening lower-income folks who are working an in-person job and need to show up five days a week, you could still capture a significant majority of the bridge traffic if you were to cap the toll at something like a maximum of three crossings per week,” Petty said.

Similarly, drivers who must use two or more bridges could be given a “long-distance discount” and only charged for one toll crossing per trip.

SB 532 would hike tolls by $1.50 for five years starting next Jan. 1. Sen. Wiener says the increase would raise as much as $900 million for Bay Area transit operators who face major deficits beginning in 2025.

Supporters include BART, AC Transit, public transportation advocacy groups, environmental activists, nine YIMBY chapters and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Seven state lawmakers from the region have signed on to the bill as co-authors.

Wiener has acknowledged the equity issue posed by the proposed toll increases and has amended his bill to direct the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to devise a program over the next two years to reduce the hike’s impact on lower-income drivers.

But that amendment has done little to soften the opposition from some elected officials. In addition to the seven House members who raised objections to the bill, several state lawmakers, mostly from outlying parts of the Bay Area, have also said they’re against the toll increase.

One of the chief concerns is that the $1.50 toll increase will come on top of a series of other increases approved by Bay Area voters in 2018. Regional Measure 3 has raised tolls on the Antioch, Benicia, Carquinez, Richmond-San Rafael, Bay, San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges to $7 over the last several years. If SB 532 passes, the rate will go up to $8.50 in January. And the next toll increase under RM3 will add a dollar to that on New Year’s Day 2025.

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With the bill needing a two-thirds majority in both the state Assembly and Senate to pass, the split in the regional delegation raises questions about prospects for the bill’s success.

The Bay Area Council has been the leading voice in opposing the measure. Besides expressing concerns about the higher tolls’ impact on lower-income drivers, the group has insisted that public transit agencies must improve performance on a range of issues — including public safety, cleanliness, reliability and offering more “seamless” service for passengers — before new public funding is approved.

Much of the council’s attention has been focused on BART, with the group issuing several calls in recent months for the agency to toughen enforcement of passenger conduct rules and to speed up installation of a new generation of fare gates to deter those who enter the system without paying.

BART has responded by approving a 22% pay increase for its police force, a step meant to retain officers and help fill nearly 30 vacant positions in its Police Department.

And ahead of a crucial Assembly Appropriations Committee vote on SB 532 this week, BART General Manager Robert Powers will host a ride-along with Sen. Wiener to show off the agency’s recent “safety, cleanliness and reliability improvements.”

The ride-along will begin at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, at Civic Center station and visit West Oakland station and the BART police “integrated security response center,” a facility that handles police dispatch calls and includes monitors for the system’s 4,000 surveillance cameras.

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