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

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

When state lawmakers this past week put the brakes on a plan to rescue BART and other ailing transit systems, a key concern was that the proposed toll increases at Bay Area bridges to pay for the bailout would wallop low-paid workers who cross those spans to get to their jobs.

But the question of who would bear the burden of a $1.50 bridge toll hike — the working poor or the well-off — is hardly settled, as both sides of the debate point to data and arguments that back their claims. The answer will be key to selling the bailout plan as legislative advocates strategize a fresh pitch for early next year.

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

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

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

Who’s right? The two sides say it depends on how you slice the numbers, though there’s little dispute the transit systems face a sobering financial reckoning.

Vehicles move through the toll plaza of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Monday, June 26, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. Lawmakers are proposing a temporary toll increase on most Bay Area bridges to help transit agencies suffering an operating revenue shortfall. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The Bay Area’s bridges and transit systems have been on divergent paths since the pandemic. Road and bridge traffic has largely returned to pre-pandemic gridlock, but many transit riders haven’t come back since the lockdowns, in part due to the remote work rise and what surveys show are crime and cleanliness concerns. Caltrans data show monthly traffic on the Bay Bridge hit 3.7 million in June, close to the 4 million a month in June 2019. BART had 4.2 million monthly riders in June, 41% of the pre-pandemic 9.8 million.

That has crippled the finances of transit agencies that rely on fare revenues to run their trains and buses, and have hollered they’re heading off a “fiscal cliff” in coming years as federal pandemic aid runs out. Transit agencies say that will force drastic service cuts without a financial bailout.

State officials made additional transit funding available in the current state budget. And SB 532 by state Sen. Scott Wiener proposed additional help from a $1.50, five-year toll hike on seven state-owned Bay Area bridges — the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael and San Mateo-Hayward and Bay Bridge — but not the Golden Gate.

The toll hike was to provide interim transit funding while regional authorities consider asking voters to bless a 2026 long-term funding measure to help stabilize transit finances. But Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said this week in the face of growing opposition to the bill that it needs more time and won’t be considered until next year.

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

A Bay Area Council analysis using MTC and U.S. Census data found that 63% of Northern California workers who must cross a state-owned bridge to get to work are employed in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The group found median incomes were $3,400-$15,000 lower for the bridge commuters driving in from more affordable communities than for workers who didn’t have to cross bridges to get to work.

SPUR in its recent analysis said MTC and Census data “provide an incomplete picture” of bridge-crossers. So the group teamed up with data company Replica to analyze information from the census, traffic counts, cell phones, credit card transactions, Fastrak and toll payments, and other public and private sources to assess toll hike impacts.

BART ridership is down by more than half since the pandemic, with remote work and concerns about safety and cleanliness keeping riders from flocking back. (File) 

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SPUR’s analysis found household incomes of bridge drivers on average are $22,000 more than incomes of BART riders, with more than 40% topping $150,000 a year. And more people took BART to work (26%) than bridges (17%) last fall. Two-thirds of bridge crossers traveled just once a week, with just 5% crossing five times a week, indicating most bridge crossers aren’t regular commuters.

SPUR added that the findings show a toll hike could be tailored to ease the burden on those regular drivers, with perhaps weekly toll caps or means-based discounts.

Bay Area Council spokesman Rufus Jeffris said the group doesn’t dispute SPUR’s findings, “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 that most regularly use the bridges.”

At the Berryessa BART station in San Jose, Parag Phadke, who had ridden BART home from the San Francisco airport and admitted he’s an infrequent bridge crosser, said 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 those ineligible for discounts nearly $15, while it currently costs $7 to cross the bridges that would be subject to the toll hike. An extra $1.50 would still be less than the $8.75 Fastrak cost to cross the Golden Gate.

Wiener said the bridge toll plan, which would only cover half of transit agencies’ projected shortfalls, remains an option to be considered.

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

The impact of tolls on lower-income motorists isn’t the only thing giving lawmakers pause about approving more transit bailout money. Critics also cited concerns that transit ridership won’t return to pre-pandemic levels and the agencies need to adjust and also demonstrate progress on addressing crime and cleanliness concerns that surveys show suppress ridership.

Sen. Dave Cortese of San Jose, who supported both Wiener’s transit bailout and the BART extension to downtown San Jose, said “the original plan is dead” given other lawmakers’ concerns. And it’ll be hard to get lawmakers and voters to agree on more money for transit systems whose ridership isn’t what it once was.

“The world is changing,” Cortese said.