Who’d shoulder higher Bay Area bridge tolls to bail out transit? Backers say the rich, critics the poor. Who’s right?

Debate grows as lawmakers push bail out plan to next year

The proposed toll increases at Bay Area bridges to pay for the bailout would wallop low-wage workers who cross those spans to get to work, according to state lawmakers who put the brakes on a plan to rescue BART and other ailing transit systems this week.

But the question of who would bear the burden of a $1.50 bridge toll hike — the working poor or the wealthy — is far from settled, with both sides citing data and arguments to support their claims. As legislative advocates plan a new pitch for early next year, the answer will be critical to selling the bailout plan.

In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders earlier this month, seven Bay Area congressional representatives expressed serious concerns about the toll hike plan and demanded an analysis of its impact on “low-income or car-dependent commuters.”

The congressional delegation cited Metropolitan Transportation Commission data showing that Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties account for 59% of bridge toll payers, as well as research showing that delinquent toll fines are concentrated in impoverished ZIP codes. According to the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public-policy advocacy organization that opposes the toll hikes, toll payers have “statistically lower income, lower levels of education, and are disproportionately people of color.”

Not so fast, said SPUR, an urban-planning research organization that supports the toll hikes. SPUR reported this month that “transit riders are more likely than bridge drivers, and the population as a whole, to have low incomes, be people of color, or be members of other disadvantaged groups,” whereas “drivers crossing bridges as a whole are financially better off.”

Who is correct? The two sides argue that it depends on how the numbers are sliced, but there’s little doubt that transit systems face a sobering financial reckoning.

Since the pandemic, the Bay Area’s bridges and transit systems have taken divergent paths. Road and bridge traffic has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, but many transit riders have not returned since the lockdowns, owing in part to an increase in remote work and, according to surveys, crime and cleanliness concerns. According to Caltrans data, monthly traffic on the Bay Bridge reached 3.7 million in June, close to the 4 million recorded in June 2019. In June, BART had 4.2 million monthly riders, 41% of the pre-pandemic 9.8 million.

This has crippled the finances of transit agencies that rely on fare revenues to run their trains and buses, and they’ve warned that they’re about to fall off a “fiscal cliff” as federal pandemic aid runs out in the coming years. Transit agencies claim that without a financial bailout, this will force drastic service cuts.

State officials included additional transportation funding in the current state budget. SB 532, introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, proposed an additional $1.50 toll increase on seven state-owned Bay Area bridges — the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo-Hayward, and Bay Bridge — but not the Golden Gate.

The toll increase was intended to provide interim transit funding while regional officials consider asking voters to approve a long-term funding measure to help stabilize transit finances in 2026. However, Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, stated this week that the bill requires more time and will not be considered until next year.

A $1 increase is already scheduled to begin in 2025, the fourth in six years, which voters approved in 2018 to fund road and transit improvements.

According to a Bay Area Council analysis of MTC and US Census data, 63% of Northern California workers who must cross a state-owned bridge to get to work work in San Francisco, San Mateo, or Santa Clara counties. The group discovered that bridge commuters driving in from more affordable communities had lower median incomes than workers who did not have to cross bridges to get to work.

According to SPUR’s most recent analysis, MTC and Census data “provide an incomplete picture” of bridge-crossers. To assess the impact of the toll hike, the group collaborated with data company Replica to analyze data from the census, traffic counts, cell phones, credit card transactions, Fastrak and toll payments, and other public and private sources.

According to SPUR’s analysis, bridge drivers’ household incomes are on average $22,000 higher than BART riders’, with more than 40% earning more than $150,000 per year. Last fall, more people took BART to work (26%) than bridges (17%). Two-thirds of bridge crossers only crossed once per week, with only 5% crossing five times per week, indicating that the majority of bridge crossers aren’t regular commuters.

According to SPUR, the findings show that a toll hike could be tailored to ease the burden on regular drivers, such as weekly toll caps or means-based discounts.

Bay Area Council spokesman Rufus Jeffris said the group doesn’t disagree with SPUR’s findings, but “we just looked at a different subset of bridge crossers that we think is more reflective of the people who would be most impacted by a toll increase, frequent commuters who are the ones who most regularly use the bridges.”

Parag Phadke, who had ridden BART home from the San Francisco airport and admitted he’s an infrequent bridge crosser, said at the Berryessa BART station in San Jose that he’d be fine with a $1.50 toll hike to help keep the transit system afloat, but that it should be put to a vote.

“BART’s not cheap either,” said Phadke, 53. BART from SFO to Berryessa costs nearly $15 for those who are not eligible for discounts, while it currently costs $7 to cross the bridges that would be subject to the toll hike. A $1.50 surcharge would still be less than the $8.75 Fastrak fare to cross the Golden Gate.

According to Wiener, the bridge toll plan, which would only cover half of transit agencies’ projected shortfalls, is still being considered.

“Everything’s on the table,” Wiener explained in an interview.

The impact of tolls on low-income motorists isn’t the only factor causing lawmakers to reconsider approving more transit bailout funds. Critics also expressed concern that transit ridership will not return to pre-pandemic levels, and that agencies must adjust while also demonstrating progress in addressing crime and cleanliness issues that, according to surveys, suppress ridership.

Senator Dave Cortese of San Jose, who supported both Wiener’s transit bailout and the BART extension to downtown San Jose, declared that “the original plan is dead” in light of other lawmakers’ concerns. And it will be difficult to get lawmakers and voters to agree on more funding for transit systems whose ridership is declining.

“The world is changing,” said Cortese.

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