Upcoming toll increase of $ 1 for Bay Area bridges. Where is the money?

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Starting next month, motorists will spend millions more to travel on Bay Area bridges.

Tolls on the seven state-owned bridges increase by $ 1 – to $ 7 per trip – on Jan. 1, and Bay Bridge commuters without carpooling or clean air vehicles face an hourly charge of $ 8. point. This is the second time in just over a decade that Bay Area motorists have had to dig deeper into their wallets to cross the area’s bridges.

With everything from Christmas trees to gasoline costing more these days, motorists might be wondering: what is going on with all that money? Although approved by taxpayers to fund transport projects, the increased toll revenue collected is sent into legal limbo and may one day be returned to drivers.

More than $ 315 million in toll revenue is currently caught in a complicated litigation that revolves around a trash collection dispute with the City of Oakland and a crusading anti-tax group. Until the dispute is resolved, a process that could take months or years, funds from past and future toll increases are stuck in a Union Bank account.

In the meantime, the count is growing rapidly as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels and hundreds of thousands of vehicles zoom in or pass through electronic toll plazas.

Empty toll plazas are pictured at Dumbarton Bridge on Thursday, December 3, 2020, in Fremont, Calif. (Aric Crabb / Bay Area News Group)

At the root of this conflict is Regional Measure 3, a massive voting initiative in 2018 that saw voters approve three $ 1 toll increases in 2019, 2022 and again 2025 with the goal of generating 4.45 billion. dollars over 25 years for a multitude of priority public transportation. projects, such as extending the BART to downtown San Jose and expanding ferry service. The measure in nine counties was controversial from the start – in 2025, drivers will pay $ 9 to cross the Bay Bridge during the height of congestion – but it was passed with 54% of the vote backed by broad support in San Francisco.

The windfall was short-lived, in part thanks to Randall Whitney. The Oakland-based property manager, now represented by the hard-line anti-tax association Howard Jarvis Taxpayers, has filed a lawsuit to stop the toll hike. In response, the Bay Area Toll Authority funneled all Measure 3 revenue into an escrow account where it has remained since 2019. Lawyers for the anti-tax group argued that the bridge toll is not a “charge. To use state land but one and any tax increase in California requires a two-thirds majority of voters or the state legislature to be constitutional.

“It’s really frustrating that a fringe Republican group has fundamentally held back the will of the voters,” said Nick Josefowitz, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which oversees toll revenues. “It’s an ideological effort that has profound impacts on the people who are just trying to move around the Bay Area.”

Whitney’s ongoing lawsuit threatens to upend one of the largest sources of voter-approved transit funding in the Bay Area. Still, the 55-year-old admitted he was ignoring the transition fees that are piling up on his FasTrak account. In fact, he was unaware of the impending $ 1 toll hike.

“I just paid a toll. I don’t know how many, I just know it’s encountering the radio frequencies of the beeps, ”Whitney told the Bay Area News Group, referring to his FasTrak transponder. “I end up paying a lot of tolls, that’s for sure.

So far, his lawyer’s legal argument against the toll increases has not done well in the courts. The trial was initially unsuccessful in San Francisco Superior Court, and an appeals court upheld the decision. But the case took a surprising turn last year when the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case – reigniting the lawsuit and tying the fate of billion-dollar Bay Area bridge tolls to a separate dispute between homeowners and the City of Oakland Garbage and Garbage. recycling fees.

Drivers line up to pay cash to cross the Antioch Bridge in Antioch, Calif. On Monday, November 12, 2018 (Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group)

The court will not hear the bridge toll lawsuit until after it has rendered a decision in the Oakland case. Both cases argue that government fees work like taxes and raise the question of “whether there is a limit to what the government can charge for the use of public property,” said Timothy Bittle, an attorney for the Howard Jarvis association.

Depending on what the court decides in the Oakland case, the legal wrangling over the toll hike lawsuit could take years. The worst-case scenario for the Bay Area Toll Authority would be if it were forced to return the hundreds of millions of dollars raised to drivers, which transit advocates say could significantly delay already notoriously slow transit projects. of the Bay Area.

“It’s not a problem as long as the Bay Area Toll Authority wins the case,” said BART board director Rebecca Saltzman. Toll revenues “are part of our financial projections for the next 10 years”.

Regional Measure 3 was presented to voters as a pillar of the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s gigantic efforts to reduce traffic. The funds would help with everything from expanding carpool lanes in North Bay to financing new BART cars and express buses.

After big promises to commuters, the indefinite grip of a growing pile of motorist toll charges has put MTC in a difficult position. The commission always allocates the money to keep big projects on track using a creative method similar to an IOU called a no-bias letter.

This allows public transport agencies to allocate other sums of money to regional measure 3 projects with the uncertain expectation that they will eventually be reimbursed. To date, MTC has allocated over $ 516 million in IOUs to projects at various stages in the Bay Area. If the toll authority loses, the agencies must pay these funds.

For the moment, this risky workaround has largely enabled projects dependent on measure 3 to continue. But the lack of direct funding is already causing headaches and delays for some agencies.

Despite MTC’s commitment, the San Francisco Bay Ferry is unable to raise the $ 25 million needed to build a permanent landing stage in Mission Bay that would serve Chase Stadium and the growing neighborhood, a said Seamus Murphy, the executive director. Instead of being completed by the end of 2022, the ferry disembarkation is being delayed by around two years.

“We just don’t have enough reserves of capital to embark on a project like this in the hope that it will be paid off later,” Murphy said. “Especially when there is a chance that the funds we would use to backfill would never materialize. “


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