When Bay Area cities, especially San Francisco and those on the Peninsula, approve massive additional office development without housing to accommodate all the new workers, the natural result is longer commutes and unbearable traffic.
That is why Bay Area corporate leaders, state legislators and regional and local officials keep turning to voters for money to add highway lanes, extend BART to downtown San Jose, extend Caltrain to downtown San Francisco, improve bus service, and implement other measures to address transportation problems.
Santa Clara County voters have been especially responsive. In 2016, they approved a half-cent increase in the county sales tax for transportation projects that will generate an estimated $6.5 billion over the next 30 years. Along with previous sales tax hikes that are still in effect, county consumers are currently paying 9.25 percent in sales tax, with 1.625 percent dedicated to transportation improvement projects in Santa Clara County (the bulk of which is dedicated to extending BART to San Jose.)
At the same time these sales taxes are collecting billions of dollars, a statewide 12 cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax was implemented by the state Legislature last November for transportation projects. That tax will increase by another 5.6 cents next year and will be indexed to the Consumer Price Index starting in 2020.
Now along comes Regional Measure 3, which asks voters in nine Bay Area counties to approve three successive $1 increases in bridge tolls on all Bay Area bridges except the Golden Gate Bridge. The new tolls will increase tolls from the current $5 to $8 by 2025 and will thereafter be increased with the rise of the Consumer Price Index. The new tolls are expected to generate about $4.5 billion for transportation capital projects throughout the Bay Area. To pass, a majority of voters in each county must vote to approve the measure.
Supporters, who include major business groups and most Bay Area elected officials, consider toll increases to be a way other than tax increases to generate more funding for the 35 identified transportation improvements located in each of the nine counties.
The projects identified that could most directly impact the Midpeninsula are for improvements to the Dumbarton Bridge "corridor," which would receive $130 million. These could include improved bus service, bus-only lanes on the Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park and new connecting bus service with Amtrak and BART in the East Bay. It would not fund improvements to the bridge itself.
We join with Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian in opposing Regional Measure 3.
Bridge tolls are a regressive tax that inappropriately target lower-paid service workers who can't afford housing on the Peninsula (or in San Francisco) but commute here to jobs at restaurants, retail stores, schools, nursing homes and other non-tech small businesses. These commuters, who must pay for their gas and bridge tolls in after-tax dollars, will face the need to make an extra $1,000 a year to pay, after taxes, just for the increase in bridge tolls.
Funding important regional transportation infrastructure projects should ideally come through state tax revenues, which are progressive in their distribution of the tax burden. That is exactly what was achieved with the passage of SB1 last year by the California Legislature, which will fund more than $50 billion in transit improvements.
RM3's toll increases, along with the implementation of inflation escalators, ask for too much and attempt to leverage the public's frustration over bad traffic to disproportionately penalize bridge commuters, a small fraction of voters and therefore an easy target.
Bay Area business leaders and their advocacy organizations such as Silicon Valley Leadership Group need to work more on the root cause of our transportation problems — the continued approvals of new commercial development on the Peninsula without the housing needed to accommodate the employees. Until that becomes their priority, taxpayers will continue to be pressured to pay for transportation improvements that seek the impossible: the accommodation of the ever-increasing number of workers commuting long distances from affordable housing.