The tolls for driving on Bay Area bridges could go up by three dollars in the coming years. On Wednesday the Bay Area Toll Authority approved the increase, meaning it will go before Bay Area voters in June.
To explain the proposal and tell us how we got here, KALW’s transportation reporter, Eli Wirtschafter, spoke with Crosscurrents host Hana Baba.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity)
HANA: Eli, tell me about this proposal to increase bridge tolls. What are the basics of the plan?
ELI: The toll authority is looking at hiking tolls for all Bay Area toll bridges except for the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s the Bay Bridge, the Antioch Bridge, the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, the Carquinez Bridge, the Dumbarton Bridge,
the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.
These are bridges where right now the basic toll is $5. The Bay Bridge varies from $4 to $6, depending on the time of day. Now there’s a proposal to raise the tolls by $3 over the next three years. So that’s $1 more in 2019, another dollar in 2022, and finally $1 more in 2025. If you’re used to crossing the Bay Bridge during rush hour and paying six bucks — that could go up to nine dollars.
HANA: How much money would that raise?
ELI: It’s about $4.5 billion over the next 25 years, according to the plan.
HANA: And where would all that money go?
ELI: You know, I have a friend who as a kid thought that bridge toll workers must be the richest people in the world, because she assumed they get to keep all that money personally — but that’s not actually how it works!
The toll money goes to transportation projects around the Bay Area. In this case, about two-thirds fund public transit. The biggest items are funding for new BART cars, for extending BART to San Jose, and for extending Caltrain into downtown San Francisco. There’s also money for highway projects, especially in Marin and Contra Costa, but largely the toll increase would take money from drivers and spend it on improvements to public transportation.
HANA: Who supports this plan, and who’s against it?
ELI: The proposal started in the state legislature, where the main author was Jim Beall from the South Bay. It passed there along party lines, with Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed.
The toll increase has been backed by the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Association, two major local business groups. It’s also supported by a group that represents construction companies and unions, and by SPUR, the San Francisco urban policy think tank.
Another pro-transit group supporting the measure is Transform, based in Oakland. I happened to run into their director, Stuart Cohen, last Friday. We were both at an event where BART was rolling out the first car in their new fleet.
STUART COHEN: We’re very supportive of the increase. It’s going to be funding a number of critical projects, including new BART cars. We’re celebrating the approach of these new cars today. And there’ll be $500 million to get more cars. and there’ll be lots of funding for Muni, there’ll be money for bike trails. It’s critical that we get this funding.
ELI: He also said that higher tolls would cause some people to carpool or take public transit instead, and therefore improve traffic.
COHEN: The truth is the bridges are so backed up that we have to start pricing them in a way that makes sense.
HANA: Charging more to drivers so they decide to take public transit… I’m guessing some people who drive are not so happy about that?
ELI: You’re right! There’s a petition online calling for the toll authority to reject this proposal. Over 25,000 supporters so far have signed the petition. And there’s a lot of angry comments. A woman who identifies herself as Chrysteen A. wrote:
“Rich people can afford to live in the Bay Area. A lot of people who work there cannot afford to live there, and that means paying bridge tolls. The tolls hurt the people who can least afford it.”
ELI: Here’s another comment from Gwen M, who wrote:
“NOT AGAIN!! As a business owner I travel all over the Bay Area, it's getting impossible to afford living here. Not another toll increase!”
ELI: Despite that kind of sentiment, polls show that a majority of the public could support the increasing tolls.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission did a survey of more than 4,000 Bay Area residents. 54% supported the toll hike. And that number went up to 60% once they were told what the money would go towards.
HANA: So what’s next? How would this proposed toll increase become a reality?
ELI: So the next step is this meeting tomorrow by the Bay Area Toll Authority, a group of 21 officials including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim. So far the toll authority has supported moving the increase forward, so we can expect them to give the plan a final approval tomorrow. If and when they do, it will go before voters this June in the 9 counties of the Bay Area. The measure has to pass by a simple majority of all voters in those counties. So until June, expect a lot of debate on what would be called Regional Measure 3. Or, its official title, the “Bay Area Traffic Relief Plan.”
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