San Francisco judge clears way for Bay Area bridge toll hikes for regional transportation upgrades

A San Francisco Superior Court judge has tossed a lawsuit filed last year to block the use of voter-approved toll increases on the Bay Area’s state-owned bridges to pay for regional transportation and public transit upgrades, paving the way for $4.5 billion in projects to move ahead.

Last week, Judge Ethan P. Schulman dismissed the suit filed in July against the Bay Area Toll Authority and California Legislature by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The judge sided with lawmakers who drafted the framework allowing Regional Measure 3 to land on June’s ballot in the nine Bay Area counties and the toll operator that oversees collections in affirming the toll hikes are a fee rather than a tax that would have needed a greater percentage of voter approval to pass under state law.

“It’s always a relief when a lawsuit goes away,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who holds several appointed positions to oversee regional transportation, said Monday. “I couldn’t be happier with the freed-up dollars to pump into infrastructure to get these projects moving along.”

Ten months after the complaint was filed and three months since the first toll increase took effect, the judge’s ruling brings greater clarity to the myriad major transportation projects planned in the region over the next 20-plus years.

In the North Bay, it means eventual release of between $800 million and $900 million for several capital improvement projects.

The statewide taxpayers’ rights advocacy group disagrees with the judge’s ruling and interpretation of the law used to dismiss the lawsuit, said attorney Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. He said, however, the group does not intend to appeal the decision ?issued Wednesday.

“This is a very unfair tax,” said Bittle, who penned the complaint on behalf of the taxpayers’ association. “You’re taking money from the people who are forced to drive into work because they can’t afford to live where they work. It’s taking money out of pockets of the people who can least afford it and they’re not getting anything out of it.”

Barring an appeal during a 60-day window after the court’s final ruling is submitted Tuesday or Wednesday, it stands to allow transportation agencies throughout the Bay Area to begin receiving toll revenue for highway and bridge upgrades, as well as commuter bus and rail expansions.

The Highway 101 Marin-Sonoma Narrows is among the projects that will receive Regional Measure 3 funding, at $120 million to complete the estimated $715 million lane expansion from Petaluma to north of Novato. Once finished, it will conclude more than two decades of construction along the highway to establish a third lane in each direction from Marin County to Windsor for a total cost of $1.2 billion.

“It is true that all of these projects tend to cost too much and take too long,” Rabbitt said. “But hell, you’ve got to do them and make investments for the next generation, just like the previous one did for us.”

The unfinished section of the Narrows project in Sonoma County, from Corona Road to the Petaluma River, is already fully funded, through a combination of a local sales tax and the state gas tax, and expected to be finished by 2022. That should allow the bridge toll revenue assigned to the overall project to go toward a funding gap from the Marin County line south to wrap it all up by the end of 2023.

Highway 37 will see $100 million for short- and long-term planning and construction, including addressing the North Bay artery’s vulnerable levee system, prone to flooding from the mix of heavy rainstorms and sea- level rise. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit also can expect $40 million toward its estimated $55 million extension from the station near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport north to Windsor and perhaps some of the distance to Healdsburg.

“That is good news,” said Gary Phillips, mayor of San Rafael and chairman of the SMART board. “If Windsor couldn’t proceed as planned, the delays would undoubtedly cost that much more. I’m pleased those funds will be made available at this point instead of being locked up by the court action.”

Voters in June passed Regional Measure 3 with 55% support across the nine counties. As a result, the first of three $1 toll hikes went into effect on Jan. 1 on each of the region’s bridges except the independently operated Golden Gate Bridge, with subsequent increases set for 2022 and 2025.

In its suit, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association claimed the $3 increase over a seven-year period represented a tax rather than a fee, though, and therefore required a two-thirds voter majority to pass. Had the judge sided with the advocacy group, it could have invalidated the ballot measure and forced the toll authority to return the added revenue to those who have crossed one of the seven state-owned bridges since the increase began.

The Bay Area Toll Authority now awaits the judge’s official filing in the coming days before the full Metropolitan Transportation Commission settles on a process for disbursing toll money to road and transit projects.

“We are pleased, of course, by the court’s ruling,” MTC chairman Scott Haggerty, who is also an Alameda County supervisor, said in a prepared statement. “We will await further action by the court, and look forward to evaluating next steps.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

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