A fact with which nearly everyone can agree is that traffic in the Bay Area is bad, and getting worse.
How to solve that situation is where things get dicey.
One way the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has determined to help solve traffic woes is to increase bridge tolls the average commuter pays through Regional Measure 3 to pay for a swath of transportation improvement projects throughout the Bay Area. The increase would be gradual, with the last one going into effect in 2025 so that anyone driving across any of the Bay Area’s state-owned toll bridges will pay $8 by 2025 and $9 to cross the Bay Bridge during commute hours. However, after this, the measure would also allow for the toll to increase for inflation without an additional vote of the people. The goal is to raise a total of $4.5 billion for about three dozen transportation projects around the Bay Area. It is hard to argue with the fact that these projects are important and necessary, but why should those taking a bridge every day pay about $750 more a year to cross?
That, indeed, is the question. It centers around equity.
A small group of commuters should not be burdened with the cost of transportation improvements that only have a rough connection to the bridges they cross. The rationale reveals a certain amount of creep from the original intent of the tolls, and also a political tactic to get those who do not use the bridges to stick the cost of congestion relief to someone else. But it is not so easy.
Let’s be clear on one point, however, the proponents of this measure are not malicious in their intent. Traffic congestion is a true problem, one of the biggest in the Bay Area and, without remedy, threatens the viability of the area as an economic engine. Without relief, employers might think twice about expanding or coming here. And to leaders in the tech community, that is daunting possibility.
However, the original Regional Measure 1 in 1989 largely intended to help bridge traffic through new Benicia and Carquinez bridges and the widening of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge through an establishment of a base toll of $1. The next measure, in 2004, moved away from the core mission of improving bridges to other transportation improvements such as the fourth bore for the Caldecott Tunnel, the new Central Subway in San Francisco and the BART-Oakland Airport connector. While, again, no one can argue that those improvements were not necessary and important, but it shows that the bridge tolls were increasingly being seen as a way to fund projects loosely connected with crossing the Bay. It, too, was an increase of $1 to the tolls. There were also seismic surcharges that increased the tolls, which leads us to our basic toll of $5 to cross a bridge, with slight differences on the Bay Bridge.
One might think that since most of these projects are completed that the money being collected would be able to go to new projects, but that is true only to a point. Much of the revenue being collected is going to operating funds for items such as Muni light rail, AC Transit and ferry service. There has also been a financial strategy of stretching out the repayments so that the original debt still has another 40 years left from today. No doubt that the borrowing for projects related to the additional revenue collected through Regional Measure 3 will also be stretched for decades to come, with every indication our current low interest rate environment is ending. While government finance is far different from personal finance, this type of debt is massive and sure to grow.
But that’s merely one point. One could argue that the projects delivered through this borrowing and refinancing are worth it — but it does not address that the people paying for it are largely workers traveling across the Bay to jobs on the west side.
Already, the cost of living on the Peninsula has pushed out the working class farther and farther away. Adding insult to injury through an additional toll that will go to transportation projects all over the Bay Area is inherently unfair. Suggesting that those who now travel on the bridge can take public transit is ignoring the reality that it is not a viable option for myriad reasons including that it is costly and inconvenient.
The project list is also scant for San Mateo County. There is some money for Dumbarton corridor improvements, managed lanes on Highway 101 and the State Route 92/Highway 101 interchange. All three are already in the process and should be the beneficiary of gas tax money our state legislators just hiked.
While it might be easy for a San Mateo County resident to vote yes since they may rarely use bridges, it is not fair for others who must travel distances to provide services here. In addition, the project list is modest for this area, and would have been worse if it weren’t for the work of our state legislators. The potential for future unfairness is very real when it comes to doling out future funding, particularly when there are overruns and politicians from San Francisco, San Jose and the East Bay apply the pressure.
Adding to the unfairness is that South Bay tech companies are pushing for this measure because it will essentially help subsidize their transportation costs and the political class doesn’t have the courage to address the true impact of that elephant.
Clearly, there is a need to address traffic congestion in this area. A 12-cent increase to the gas tax was meant to address our growing needs. We have local taxes specifically for transportation projects already and there is talk of additional tax measures. Increasing bridge tolls to keep them safe makes sense. Adding capacity or other projects to ease bridge commutes with toll money makes sense. This increase is mission creep. It’s also unfair to the working-class men and women that provide the backbone to this area. People talk about traffic as a primary issue for this area, but there is also the rising cost of living. And this measure adds to the cost of living for some for the benefit of others. Traffic is bad, but is it so bad that we must essentially tax many who can’t afford it? It’s time to go back to the drawing board for a more equitable way to solve our traffic problems and stop reaching into the wallets of the working class already severely affected by the rising cost of living. Vote no on Regional Measure 3.