Bridge Toll Ballot Measure Spans All Nine Bay Area Counties
By Cecily O’Connor
Bay Area voters will weigh a large investment in traffic congestion relief on June 5 as part of a $4.45 billion plan to clear bottlenecks and boost transportation options along the region’s bridge corridors and approaches.
To pay for Regional Measure 3’s (RM 3) nearly 40 projects, drivers will need to shell out $1 more starting in 2019 to cross one of the Bay Area’s seven state-owned bridges. Subsequent $1 increases would follow in 2022 and 2025.
That means by 2025 it would cost $9 to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and $8 for the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, and San Mateo-Hayward spans. The Golden Gate Bridge is independently owned and not included in RM 3.
RM 3 is “important because none of the measures we have adopted so far have filled the gap between the cost of maintaining critical infrastructure in a state of good repair, and at the same time, providing the money needed to add infrastructure to meet the needs of the economy and population, which continue to grow,” said Elizabeth Deakin, professor emerita of city and regional planning and urban design at UC Berkeley.
If the measure passes by receiving a majority of support from voters in all nine Bay Area counties, the new toll rate would go into effect January 1.
RM 3 proponents said the extra $3 is a worthwhile investment that provides long-term solutions to daily commute woes. Projects funded by the measure aim to clear traffic congestion, expand and upgrade public transit, and improve connections.
Even so, some residents and transportation advocates are frustrated about shouldering funding needs. They are questioning why higher tolls are necessary, how they’ll be spent, and whether they’re affordable.
Bay Area policymakers have already leaned heavily on voters to support transportation because state and federal funding sources are limited. During the November 2016 election, residents across the region approved big initiatives from cities, counties, and transit agencies seeking billions via sales taxes and bonds.
“The Time Is Right”
RM 3 was authorized under Senate Bill 595 (Beall), introduced in February 2017 out of concern the Bay Area’s growth is taking a toll on transportation infrastructure. The region’s population is expected to spike by 2.3 million by 2040, and jobs will jump up by 1.3 million.
For those who live far from transit hubs and drive to work, the commute is cumbersome. Highway and bridge congestion during weekday commutes continues to climb, hurting quality of life. Combined volumes on the region’s state-owned toll bridges grew by 11 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) data.
“Traffic is at an all-time high,” said Rebecca Long, MTC’s government relations manager. “We don’t see a lot of opportunity to generate significant funding for the bridge corridors from Sacramento or Washington, D.C. The time is right to ask the voters to make the types of investments that have been made by prior voters.”
In 1988, voters approved Regional Measure 1, which instituted a $1 base toll on the region’s seven state-owned bridges. Tolls were 40 cents to 75 cents before, with the exception of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which already cost $1 to cross. The increased proceeds bankrolled bridge and highway projects, including $1.2 billion for the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.
Sixteen years later, voters approved Regional Measure 2 (RM 2). It raised tolls by $1 and — similar to RM 3 — established a regional traffic relief plan aimed at highway, transit, bike, and pedestrian projects in bridge corridors and approaches. A big RM 2 benefactor is the soon-to-open Transbay Transit Center. It has received $353 million, inclusive of RM 2 and other toll revenue, according to MTC data.
RM 3 outlines both regional and corridor-specific projects, totaling $1.55 billion and $2.9 billion, respectively. The most expensive regional capital expenditure item is $500 million for BART to purchase 300 new train cars.
The new BART vehicles, along with other system improvements already underway, are expected to boost the number of trains running through the Transbay Tube to 30 per hour (up from 23), and lengthen peak-hour trains to an average 10 cars (up from 8.9), said Alicia Trost, a BART spokesperson, in an email.
Corridor-specific lists include $780 million for Bay Bridge-adjacent projects, such as Caltrain’s planned downtown extension. Heading south, about $985 million will be siphoned into the corridors of the San Mateo-Hayward and Dumbarton bridges. More than $1.1 billion is allotted to the North Bay, including the Richmond-San Rafael, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, and Antioch bridge corridors.
RM 3 opponents like David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF), acknowledge the need for traffic solutions. But he said the measure would encourage more solo driving, stymieing goals to reduce both traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. According to TRANSDEF’s website, more than a dozen “highway” RM 3 projects — representing nearly $1.4 billion in funding — fit this characterization.
“In TRANSDEF’s analysis, the primary problem is too many people driving alone. Period.” said Schonbrunn, who urged greater emphasis on carpooling and coordinated transportation policy to increase lane usage.
About 12 percent of Bay Area residents rely on public transit during commute hours, compared to 60 percent who drive alone.
RM 3 would allocate $300 million toward express lane expansion, which would give solo drivers the option to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for a fee “when the time savings is worth it to them,” according to RM 3’s ballot description. Expansion is planned in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Solano counties.
“Carpooling has stayed steady over the years and our goal is to maintain that percentage-wise as the population grows,” said MTC’s Long, noting a partnership MTC announced in January with carpool app Scoop to link drivers with commuters needing a ride.
Under RM 3, carpools still get the current 50 percent bridge toll discount during peak weekday travel. It also stipulates that residents paying tolls on two bridges during commute hours would get 50 percent off the second crossing within a one-day period.
Even with discounts, toll hikes may not be the most equitable approach, since Bay Area residents log varying bridge usage rates depending on their lifestyle and where they live. Several elected officials in Contra Costa County initially opposed SB 595, saying that a toll increase would disproportionately put the burden of financing transportation infrastructure investments on East Bay residents compared to areas where bridge usage is lower.
A recent MTC survey based on more than 4,100 interviews broke down what percentage of “frequent toll payers” (those crossing a bridge at least once a week) live in each Bay Area county. It found 28 percent reside in the Napa/Solano sub-region, 23 percent in Alameda, 21 percent in Contra Costa, 20 percent in San Francisco, 18 percent in the Marin/Sonoma sub-region, 14 percent in San Mateo, and 3 percent in Santa Clara.
“I personally will not be significantly impacted because I only occasionally cross one of the toll bridges involved,” wrote Jack Gray, director of the Napa County Taxpayers Association, in a February 13 letter to the Napa Valley Register. “However, I believe anyone commuting to or from the San Francisco Bay Area would be severely impacted and many would be crossing two or more of the toll bridges daily.”
Seeking to reassure commuters about the sacrifice it’s asking of them, RM 3 establishes a citizen oversight committee to make sure spending gels with the project expenditure list that’s presented to voters this June.
Expenditure list changes are not very common, but they can occur when a project sponsor, for example, determines that factors related to cost or demand have changed. Environmental analysis also could reveal red flags, or new community concerns may arise that halt activity.
More than 90 percent of the entire RM 2 capital program voters approved in 2004 “was delivered,” said Randy Rentschler, MTC’s director of legislation and public affairs. But a portion of the $135 million earmarked for Dumbarton Bridge commuter rail service was later reassigned by MTC to other projects. The majority, approximately $91 million, was put into the BART-to-Warm Springs extension.
Rentschler said reassignment of Dumbarton rail funds was “a reasonable policy choice” in response to costs that increased beyond original projections. “The decision to fund BART had no material impact on the Dumbarton project in the sense that it wasn’t deliverable anyway.”
Meanwhile, transportation planners continue to set sights on the Dumbarton corridor. The San Mateo County Transit District has looked at several possibilities for the bridge. If RM 3 passes, about $130 million would fund early mobility improvements.
Policing this expenditure and others would be the responsibility of RM 3’s citizen oversight committee. County supervisors in each of the nine Bay Area counties would appoint two representatives to the committee, whose job it would be to ensure consistent toll revenue spending. Its formation would be modeled on a similar fund management approach that local counties are taking after enacting sales tax measures.
“Voters ought to see this as something that protects their interests,” Rentschler said.
RM 3 would also establish a BART Inspector General office, which would operate with a $1 million bridge toll revenue allocation. Generally speaking, the office would identify ways to improve BART operations and capital projects delivery. California’s governor would appoint the Inspector General to a four-year term, selected from a three-person pool nominated by the BART board.
Commuters Consider the Choice
With two months to go until the election, cost remains a top-of-mind consideration for many residents. One commuter the Bay Area Monitor spoke with was unaware of RM 3, and upon learning about potential toll hikes, had a negative response.
“My initial reaction was ‘No thank you’,” said Gunther, a Dumbarton Bridge commuter who declined to provide his last name during a March 7 phone interview. “I don’t think that’s going to help my situation. The commute is already expensive and it’s really a tax on any type of movement in the Bay Area.”
Another East Bay resident had a more pragmatic reaction.
“I understand the cost of living is high here, and I’m also someone concerned about the structural stability of bridges and highways,” said Oakland resident Zeena Fakoury, who commutes to her job in Sausalito by car. “If the money is going to be used for enhancement of bridges and infrastructure, then I approve of it.”
Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.