Bill seeking to bail out BART with bridge-toll hikes is put on pause

Bill seeking to bail out BART with bridge-toll hikes is put on pause

Efforts to pass a controversial bill to fund the Bay Area’s financially strapped transit system–including BART, Muni and other agencies–by raising Bay Area bridge tolls by $1.50 are being put on pause amid weak legislative support, State Sen. Scott Wiener announced Monday.

The San Francisco Democrat introduced the bill late in the legislative session after efforts to obtain sustainable transit funding in the state budget fell through. In an interview, Wiener said he knew from the beginning that the toll hike would be a difficult political lift. SB352 would have required a two-thirds majority to pass both houses of the Legislature.

“We don’t have enough time, so we’re hitting the pause button,” Wiener said. “We’re going to work within our Bay Area delegation to try to build broader support for a funding strategy.”

The proposal also faced criticism from regional observers, local members of Congress and some of Wiener’s own colleagues. Critics said it was unfair to pass the cost of diminished ridership onto bridge drivers and that the fare hike would disproportionately impact low- and moderate-income residents.

But Wiener said the pause was not so much due to outside opposition as it was a lack of support from within the state senate.

“I’m one legislator,” he said. “I need support from a whole bunch of other legislators to do anything.”

The Bay Area Council, a public-policy advocacy organization that adamantly opposes SB352, referred to the pause as “a good step” and said that operational reforms “must be the first and only priority for addressing transit system challenges.”

“We can’t continue to fund unsustainable transit operations that aren’t meeting the needs of riders,” Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, wrote in a statement.

Had the bill passed, the cost of crossing state-owned bridges in the Bay Area would have increased from $7 to $8.50 in January 2024. That additional $1.50 would then be sent to Bay Area transit operators that have seen fare revenue plummet in the wake of COVID-19. Wiener has described the proposal as a form of “financial self help.”

The money would have covered approximately half of Bay Area transit agencies’ operating shortfall.

State lawmakers will now have to return to the drawing board as they determine how to save the Bay Area’s regional transit system. Faced with declining fares and slowly rebounding ridership that may never reach pre-pandemic numbers, transit agencies have thus far been propped up by federal aid. That money is soon coming to an end.

Although additional state funding this year will help avert a fiscal cliff that could cut services imminently, potentially shuttering BART lines and removing buses, service cuts are still possible as soon as 2025 without a reliable funding mechanism.

James Allison, a spokesperson for BART, which supported SB352, said the transit agency will “continue to offer our assistance to the Senator and other lawmakers as they work to find a consensus solution to this regional issue.”

Wiener said the bridge toll plan wouldn’t necessarily be scrapped as as that option could be considered along with other regional funding solutions.

“We really have no time to lose,” Wiener said. “Ideally this would have been resolved this year, but now we’ll have to do it next year.”