Few would dispute that the Bay Area urgently needs relief from the traffic jams plaguing area bridges, highways and expressways.
But reasonable people are finding much to disagree about when it comes to Regional Measure 3 (RM3), a proposal to raise $4.5 billion for transportation improvements by gradually raising tolls at seven Bay Area bridges by $3 over the next six years, to an $8 toll. If approved by the voters of nine counties, including San Mateo and Santa Clara, RM3 would fund 35 capital projects — among them the extension of Caltrain to downtown San Francisco, expansion of BART to San Jose and Santa Clara and new express lanes, buses and ferries throughout the chronically congested region.
The measure, which originated as state Sen. Jim Beall's Senate Bill 595, has plenty of local champions, including Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss, state Sen. Jerry Hill and state Assemblyman Marc Berman, all of whom see it as a sorely needed investment in the region's transportation system.
Yet the measure also has some prominent Democratic detractors, including Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel. Simitian sees the measure as too punitive toward Bay Area drivers, noting that the toll hike could cost a regular bridge commuter an additional $750 annually. For Siegel, the measure doesn't go far enough in addressing congestion on the Midpeninsula, particularly around the State Route 85 corridor.
If approved, RM3 would authorize three $1 increases at the seven state-owned toll bridges: Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo-Hayward and the Bay Bridge (the Golden Gate is operated by its own district), which would kick in on Jan. 1, 2019, on Jan. 1, 2022 and on Jan. 1, 2025. The series of increases would ultimately raise the bridge tolls from $5 to $8, with discounts for those commuters who cross more than one bridge during their commutes.
The regional measure has two precedents: an 1988 measure that standardized fees at state bridges at $1 and that funded, among other things, a replacement span for Carquinez Bridge, the new Benicia-Martinez Bridge and the widening of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge; and a 2004 measure that added another $1 to the toll and funded 36 projects, including light rail in San Francisco, improvements to Interstate 80, a seismic retrofit of BART and various bike, pedestrian and transit services in all nine Bay Area counties.
In addition to these tolls, the state Legislature approved a pair of $1 increases in 1997 and 2007 and the Bay Area Toll Authority added another $1 in 2010. These hikes were used to seismically retrofit the bridges and complete the placement of the Bay Bridge's East Span, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
But while each of the prior two regional measures called for a $1 toll increase, the latest proposal would authorize three such hikes. For some critics of RM3, including Simitian, this is too big of an ask. He noted that a $3 toll increase for the daily commuter translates to an extra $15 per week and over the course of a year, more than $750 extra.
"That's pretty steep, and it's regressive, and it hits people who don't have choices, many of whom live in the East Bay and are trying to get to work in San Francisco or in Silicon Valley," Simitian told the Weekly. "They certainly don't have the option to move here given what our rents and mortgages are, and transit options are still limited and imperfect at best."
Supporters of RM3 counter that while bridge commuters, like much of the population, understandably dislike toll hikes, most hate traffic even more. RM3 would combat the scourge of congestion by funding 35 projects, many of which cross county lines. In the Midpeninsula area, this includes $130 million for Dumbarton Corridor improvements — which could result in added bus service across the bridge, bus-only lanes on Bayfront Expressway, an Amtrak extension to Redwood City, and improved BART connections in the East Bay, among other potential projects; and $50 million for ramp improvements at the U.S. Highway 101 and State Route 92 interchange. (The exact projects that would be funded have not been decided upon.)
The projects closest to Palo Alto that could be funded by Regional Measure 3 would involve the Dumbarton Bridge Corridor, which would receive $130 million of the $4.45 billion dollars collected.
The exact list of projects is not spelled out in the measure, but according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report, eligible projects would be drawn in part from the 2017 Dumbarton Corridor Transportation Study by SamTrans — which includes plans in the near term to add bus service from the East Bay to Menlo Park and Redwood City, bus-only lanes on Bayfront Expressway, an extension of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor service to Redwood City, and various road configurations and signal changes to speed public transit.
The funding could also be used to improve BART connections in the East Bay and add an HOV east of the bridge.
Transportation projects throughout the region funded by Regional Measure 3 could, in theory, improve traffic conditions in Palo Alto, since commuters who currently drive to work here from afar could switch to public transit, reducing roadway congestion.
Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, pointed to a poll conducted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that showed more than 60 percent of voters at each income level who were surveyed support the measure. Among poll participants, RM3 received support from 61 percent of those making less than $50,000 a year; from 63 percent of those making between $50,000 and $60,000 per year; and from 64 percent of those making more than $100,000.
Guardino didn't dispute Simitian's characterization of the measure as "regressive" but noted that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has tried to offset that by giving 50 percent discounts to drivers who cross two state-owned bridge (which would largely apply to Solano County commuters). The organization is also in the process of developing a program to reduce transit fares by 30 to 50 percent for low-income individuals.
Guardino, whose group is advocating for RM3's passage, said the $4.5 billion is a crucial tier in a layer-cake of funding sources that also includes county, state and federal (admittedly, the last of these is now crumbling). On the county level, voters of Santa Clara County approved in 2016 a sales-tax increase that is expected to bring in $6.3 billion over the next 30 years.
And Sacramento lawmakers helped address the state layer last year, when they passed Senate Bill 1, a transportation bill that includes more than $50 billion for transportation improvements.
The state bill is a critical revenue source, said Guardino, who also serves on the California Transportation Commission, which is charged with allocating SB1 money for transit improvements, highway upgrades and other transportation projects. (Just last week, the commission recommended allocating $253.2 million from SB1 to create toll lanes, known as "express lanes" or "managed lanes," on U.S. Highway 101 in San Mateo County, between Interstate 380 and Redwood City.)
But the SB1 funds fall well short of what's needed to solve the Bay Area's transportation problems, Guardino said. RM3 supplements these funds by focusing on projects that "almost entirely cross county lines," he said.
"We're all sensitive to taxes and fees, but if we don't do it in a way that's driven by usage, how else are we going to fund these improvements that cross county lines and that we can't capture in countywide and city measures?" Guardino said.
Jerry Hill said he decided to support the bill because he approved of the way the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) developed its list of projects — through its staff. He said he made it clear to the agency that he doesn't want to see politics involved in the decision making, with commissioners trying to get the most for their particular cities.
"We wanted MTC staff to independently develop what would be the best use of funds in the region and each county," Hill said. "These are not politically motivated; they are the ones most ready to build. Best bang for the buck; not best for a certain area."
But from Siegel's perspective, the commission's failure to get feedback from his city and others in the area is one of the reasons he does not support RM3.
Siegel, who serves on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA's) Policy Advisory Committee, said he was surprised that his committee — which includes local officials from cities throughout the county — never had a chance to offer its feedback on the list of projects. This, he said, was particularly strange given the recent Measure B process, in which north county and west valley cities came together to extract some improvements for their regions — most notably, for Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, a $700 million allocation for grade separations along the Caltrain corridor.
Siegel said his constituents are particularly concerned about the congested State Route 237 corridor, which includes a light-rail system parallel to the highway. Not many people take the rail system today because the trains take too long to get to Mountain View, he said. But there is a plan currently in place to extend the light-rail network and to offer a direct connection from Milpitas to Mountain View.
Siegel said he would have liked to see the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's list include light-rail improvements — including express trains — on the list of 35 projects.
"If we really want to make it easier for people to get to work in Silicon Valley, it should've been on the list," Siegel said.
Liz Kniss, who as a county supervisor served on the VTA board before she was re-elected to the Palo Alto council in 2012, reached a different conclusion. Kniss said she likes the fact that the measure includes funding for traffic-relief on 101 and for improving the Dumbarton Corridor, which she said has been a "perennial headache."
In addition, she noted that the bridge tolls — while an imperfect mechanism — are unlikely to have a significant impact on Palo Alto, where residents don't take as many bridges as their counterparts in the East Bay and North Bay. Simitian sees this as an unfair burden for bridge commuters, who he noted are being asked to pay for traffic improvements that, in many cases, benefit people elsewhere.
"I want to take the regional view, but the burden is not being shared regionally," Simitian said.
But for Kniss, the fact that her constituents won't be burdened too much by the toll hikes is a good thing.
"It probably brings money into our region for a good traffic-management purpose and, at the same time, probably a lot of people in our county are not going to be paying this on a regular basis," Kniss said.
Marc Berman, an avid supporter of RM3, argued that many projects would directly help his constituents in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The funding for the Dumbarton Corridor is particularly critical, he said, because it will address the congested approaches to the corridor and create more efficient ways, especially for public transit, to get around.
"This will have a huge impact on traffic along the corridor, right through north Palo Alto," Berman said, noting the heavy congestion that Crescent Park neighborhood residents experience every day as the commuter caravan makes its way east along University Avenue toward Dumbarton in the evening.
Berman said he worked with Hill and state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin to raise the allocation for the Dumbarton corridor from $100 million to $130 million and to ensure that $50 million was carved out specifically for the U.S. Highway 101-State Route 92 interchange.
"When you're looking for a win-win it means everyone will feel like they lost a little," Berman said. "And when you're trying to create a nine-county transportation measure, no one will get everything they wanted. But I think every city and county will benefit from the overall package, which is just one tool in our toolshed for trying to address our transportation-congestion crisis."