Golden Gate Bridge tolls to reach $9.75 by 2023

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The cost of going from the North Bay to San Francisco is about to get more expensive.

Starting in July, a southbound trip across the Golden Gate Bridge will rise from $7 to $7.35 for most drivers, with jumps of the same amount for another four years thereafter. It’s part of a plan the bridge district’s board of directors approved Friday morning to increase tolls over the iconic Bay Area structure to $8.75 by summer 2023 for the 85 percent of drivers who use a FasTrak transponder and $9.75 for out-of-state visitors and more casual bridge users.

The toll hikes are the result of a looming $75 million budget deficit that without an increase, the bridge district warned, would require cuts to its daily ferry and bus services. The board on Friday selected the option that will secure an estimated $100 million over the next five years to maintain transit at current levels, as well as allow possible future expansion of services.

“The No. 1 mission of the Golden Gate Bridge is to keep traffic flowing over the bridge,” said Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte, one of three Sonoma County representatives on the bridge district board. “The freeways are only so big, the bridge is only so big — we can’t add a lane. So how do we keep that traffic going? We have to invest in our transit system.”

The 1.7-mile bridge sees a daily average of between 112,000 and 119,000 vehicles each day, according to Caltrans. That totals about $152 million in tolls for the 2018-19 fiscal year, or nearly 60 percent of the district’s annual operating budget.

In the first year of implementation, the toll increase will bring in an additional $7 million, according to bridge district general manager Denis Mulligan. Each subsequent increase will generate a similar amount, increasing annual revenues to about $187 million in 2023.

By comparison, the Bay Area Toll Authority, which oversees the region’s seven state-owned bridges, expects toll revenues of roughly $735 million during the fiscal year ending June 30. That also accounts for a recent $1 increase that took effect in January — the first of three such hikes over seven years to bring the majority of the bridges to an $8 toll by 2025 — after voters in the nine-county Bay Area approved Regional Measure 3 last year.

The Bay Bridge, connecting Oakland and San Francisco, is the lone outlier of the group with variable pricing depending on the day and time. During peak weekday traffic it costs $7 to cross, and that will rise to $8 in 2022 and $9 in 2025.

Of the five proposals presented to the Golden Gate Bridge District board Friday, its choice, approved by a 15-1 vote, was the largest hike on the table, and also the unanimous pick of the district’s finance committee the day before. With $25 million more than was needed to maintain status quo, the board will have what Mulligan called “flexibility” as it considers more service options, including the possibility of adding an eighth ferry boat to the fleet for more routes between Larkspur and San Francisco.

“I think there’s an appetite for additional service,” Mulligan said. “This allows a little bit of additional funding flexibility to add more transit as it’s needed.”

Ridership has grown on the Larkspur ferry route by 26 percent, according to the district. Vessels, particularly at peak commute times, are at or near capacity and a new high-speed, 500-person ferry is on the district’s wish list, but comes with a sticker price of about $30 million.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit plans to extend service to Larkspur by the end of the year, which stands to crowd the ferries even more, so having $10 million in the bank for potential matching funds in a competitive federal grant process could help push the Golden Gate Ferry application over the top, said Mulligan. The other $15 million from the toll hike would likely go toward future subsidies to offset rising costs, he said.

Only San Francisco Supervisor Vallie Brown voted against the plan adopted by her board colleagues, noting worries over how low-income residents might be affected by the increased fee over the bridge. Belforte said she understood the concerns, but ample outreach was done to take public feedback, and ultimately the funds are critical to the future of the district’s state-mandated bus and ferry services.

“The differential between the cost to cross the bridge from Option 1 to Option 5 was a few cents, but it ends up bringing in enough money that we can provide alternate means of transportation,” said Belforte. “I wish there was another way to do it and have free service for everyone. Unfortunately with the mandates, we have to provide the service. So we have to do it.”

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

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