Voters Must Decide if Bridge Tolls Hikes or Traffic Sucks More

Bay Area voters have the chance to address traffic in a rare regional measure. But is it the right solution?

Cars and buses sit in traffic on the 280 north exit ramp to Downtown San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

“Super commuters” — people who spend 90 minutes or more to get to work — have become one of the Bay Area’s grimmest phenomena, but with a rare regional measure on the June ballot, voters in all nine counties have a say in addressing why so many people spend three hours on the road every day.

Regional Measure 3 (RM3) asks voters to raise the Bay Bridge toll to a maximum of $9, and $8 for the six other state-owned bridges. Doing so would generate another $4.45 billion for public transportation projects.

The first $1 increase to the current $6 maximum toll would occur in 2019, another $1 would happen in 2022, with a final $1 in 2025. (The Golden Gate Bridge is not included, as it is managed by a separate authority, which will consider additional raises in the fall.)

The possibility of paying up to $9 to go from San Mateo to Hayward prompts understandable sticker shock. Before the Bay Area Toll Authority voted in January to send the measure to voters, a Care2 petition launched to sway them in the opposite direction, citing an already high cost of living in the region.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that coordinates transportation for the nine Bay Area counties, has identified a $198 billion funding gap for projects planned to 2040. RM3’s $4.45 billion would go a long way to making some of these vital transit needs happen.

“We know what most of our needs are for the next 20 years,” says Ratna Amin, transportation policy director for urban-planning group SPUR. “If we don’t have the revenue that Regional Measure 3 creates, we’re going to feel the negative impacts.”

That pool of money covers a lot of ground, including: $140 million for Muni facilities and fleet expansion, $500 million for BART fleet expansion, another $375 million for the second phase of the San Jose BART extension, $325 million for the Caltrain downtown extension, $300 million for improved ferry services, and $50 million to upgrade the Clipper card system.

Highway projects will also be affected. Around $120 million would be dedicated for the U.S.-101 Marin-Sonoma Narrows, and several freeway interchanges would also get a fair amount of the revenue.

But giving any of these funds to infrastructure for drivers is one of the many problems with RM3 for opponents like the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, or TRANSDEF, which launched a whole website against the measure. Local Republican parties and taxpayer associations make up the bulk of groups opposing the measure.

“In our view, this is just totally backwards thinking,” says TRANSDEF President David Schonbrunn. “The very last thing you want to be doing is making it more convenient to drive alone.”

However, Amin says that improving highways and adding express lanes means getting more buses filled with people on them, especially in areas that may not be near a transportation hub.

Schonbrunn, who has fiercely critiqued MTC for mismanagement of other projects in the past, believes congestion won’t improve and stands by his main message.

“It won’t work and it’s not fair,” especially to bridge users, he says.

SPUR agrees that the source of this vital transportation investment can’t completely be on drivers who cross bridges — or residents who are already financially strapped and forced to move out of the city. MTC data shows that 70 percent of toll-paying commuters make more than $75,000 per year, and just six percent earn less than $35,000 annually.

To remedy this, Amin points to RM3’s proposal to charge Fastrak commuters half the toll increase for a second bridge crossing in a single workday, and the separate development of a pilot program for low-income residents. And for people like Schonbrunn who don’t trust the MTC, there would be an independent oversight committee and inspector general for BART.

She also would remind voters that this is not the first time that tolls have been used for important transportation projects, referring to the two previous regional measures.

“It’s one of the most important tools in our tool belt,” Amin says. “People should expect that the cost of transportation has to go up with the cost of other things.”

A recent KPIX poll finds RM3 approval in the lead, but notes that 26 percent of voters are still unsure. Bay Area politicians, however, are making a concerted effort to get this passed. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo joined Mayor Mark Farrell at the Ferry Building on Monday for a ‘Yes on 3’ coalition push.

“Our trains are more crowded than ever before, our buses are more crowded than ever before [and] our roads are more congested than they have ever been,” Farrell says. “RM3 is a game changer, not only for San Francisco, but for the Bay Area.”

Imojadad@sfweekly.com

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