$1 toll increase on Bay Area bridges leads to CA Supreme Court lawsuit

Photo of the Bay Bridge
Jmblanco74/Creative Commons
The funding from the toll hike is meant to be used to fund public transportation infrastructure, such as new BART cars.

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Seven Bay Area bridges will increase tolls by $1 Jan. 1, 2022. The decision, enacted by voters in 2017, is under lawsuit by anti-tax organization Howard Jarvis Tax Association and awaits California State Supreme Court review.

The $1 hike is the second part of a three-series toll increase by 2025, according to Rebecca Long, acting director of legislation and public affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. As of Nov. 30, more than $315 million has been collected since the first Bay Area bridge toll increase, Long added, and it is projected to bring in almost $4.5 billion.

Passed by voters in 2017, Regional Measure 3, or RM3, outlines the projected allocation of toll funds, including public transportation construction and renovation. Under the expenditure plan, $500 million would be allocated to BART expansion cars.

However, funds collected since the first toll increase in 2019 have remained in a stalemate due to alleged Proposition 26 violations, according to Long.

“The funds raised through RM3 bridge toll hikes are being held in escrow while the court process plays out,” said BART spokesperson Alicia Trost. “It brings risks to our funding plan to purchase new train cars based on how the courts rule.”

Trost noted BART projects without external sources of funding will primarily suffer from stalled advancement.

Berkeley political activist Alfred Twu added decreased bridge travel during the pandemic limited funding for transit agencies like BART.

The timeline for the Supreme Court hearing is uncertain, according to Long.

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed the suit alleging the bridge toll may be considered a “tax,” which would be in violation of Prop. 26. Government taxes require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, and the related legislation only received a 54% majority.

According to Long, the current case progress also depends on an outstanding court decision for Zolly v. City of Oakland, a reference case that cites Prop. 26 in regard to city waste collection.

Until a decision is reached, the Bay Area bridge toll funds are unusable for projected transportation development projects, according to Long. She added funds collected since 2019 will be returned to drivers, if the court rules against the toll increases.

“This would be straightforward for FasTrak customers whose information we have on file,” Long said in an email. “But (it’s) more difficult for those who paid with cash before we switched to all electronic payment in 2020.”

Long noted toll booths did not photograph cash-paying vehicles pre-pandemic, making it difficult to determine eligibility for reimbursement. She added customers with saved receipts would be more easily refunded.

Going forward, Twu suggests bridge price changes be gradually adjusted for inflation now that toll collection is primarily digital.

“I think that any future adjustments to bridge tolls should be tied to inflation so that it’s a more gradual increase, instead of having a big jump,” Twu said.

Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lilybutton27.