Legal battle over new Bay Area bridge toll hikes could stall region’s transit projects
Commuters will pay an extra $1 to cross the Bay Area's seven state-owned bridges come Jan. 1, as part of a voter-approved measure to raise money for major transit upgrades. But the improvements could be delayed after state and transportation officials were hit with an unanticipated legal roadblock, preventing release of hundreds of millions of dollars for cash-strapped road projects, including a North Bay Highway 101 widening.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a statewide taxpayers' rights advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in July against the California Legislature and the Bay Area Toll Authority, arguing the ballot measure allowing $3 in bridge toll hikes over the next six years constitutes a tax rather than a fee. Therefore, the group contends, Regional Measure 3 should have met the state requirement of two-thirds majority for approval, instead of the 55 percent support it received from voters across the Bay Area's nine counties.
The legal complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, was amended in October, and a date has yet to be set for the case.
Despite the legal battle, the first $1 toll increase — 50 cents in carpool lanes — takes effect with the turn of the new year. The Bay Area Toll Authority will have to place the revenue from the increases in escrow until the case is resolved.
The Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission expects the increase, which applies to all of the region's toll bridges except the independently run Golden Gate, to generate between $125 and $127 million in the first year alone. It plans to use the money to cover $4.45 billion in transportation improvements.
Three significant Sonoma County projects are tied to the release of the revenue, and as a result could face delays, depending on how long the lawsuit drags out.
'The unknowns about timing and outcomes are challenging for all of us to plan and deliver projects,' said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. 'The way things work, as far as I can tell, we could know next month or in three years. So it's hard to plan around as a result of that.'
The Highway 101 lane- widening project known as the Sonoma-Marin Narrows is set to get $120 million from the toll increase to complete the last segment, from the Marin County line to just north of Novato, by winter 2023. The Sonoma section, from the Petaluma River north to Corona Road, already has the necessary funds from other sources to wrap up by fall 2022.
Another $100 million from the toll hikes is dedicated to move forward on environmental and design work on the beleaguered Highway 37 at the northern edge of San Pablo Bay. A solution to the consistently gridlocked roadway that's also susceptible to sea-level rise is estimated at up to $4 billion and may not happen before 2050, but the environmental and design work is seen as key in jump-starting the project.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line expects to receive $40 million from the measure for its northern expansion to just beyond Windsor, getting closer to Healdsburg. Deb Fudge, chairwoman of SMART's board and a longtime Windsor councilwoman, said it's still too early to tell what impact the holdup in funds may have on plans to begin service north of Sonoma County Airport by early 2022.
Jake Mackenzie, MTC chairman and a SMART board member, called the potential delays in the rail line expansion because of the taxpayer association lawsuit 'extremely unfortunate.' He said the region's toll authority did proper legal analysis and is 'on sound ground' after the State Legislature passed a bill that Gov. Jerry Brown later signed, authorizing the toll increase measure to go before voters.
'I have no love for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association,' Mackenzie said. 'I find their approach abhorrent. To me, it's very harmful to advancing the will of the people and to advancing the transportation needs of the nine Bay Area counties. We believe that our judgment is correct and will be upheld.'
Attorney Tim Bittle, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association's director of legal affairs, referred an inquiry about the Regional Measure 3 lawsuit back to the court documents.
Should the plaintiff ultimately prevail in court, the Bay Area Toll Authority said it will reimburse toll-payers, recommending those who don't use a FasTrak tag or transponder and instead pay with cash to request a receipt, just in case.
'As soon as the ball drops here and the Champagne is popped, if people are crossing one of the bridges, they will have to pay the increased toll,' said John Goodwin, Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman. 'This is a user fee. We certainly believe that the law will be on the side of MTC, but we shall see.'
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.