A pot of $545 million destined for new projects in the Bay Area may soon be released from escrow after litigation over a 2018 ballot measure on bridge toll increases finally comes to an end.
The California Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jan. 25, let stand a decision from the state Court of Appeal in a case brought by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association challenging toll increases on seven state-operated Bay Area bridges.
Howard Jarvis was an anti-tax gadfly best known for his role in the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which amended the California Constitution to limit tax on California real estate. HJTA advocates and frequently litigates against taxes.
HJTA challenged the $1 bridge toll increases set for 2019, 2022 and 2025 as part of Regional Measure 3, which was approved by the region's voters in 2018. HJTA argued that the tolls were actually taxes and even though they were approved in the state Legislature and by citizen ballots, the percentages approving were less than the two-thirds required for special taxes.
The case was filed in San Francisco Superior Court in 2018. That court ruled against HJTA on April 23, 2019, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision on June 29, 2020.
HJTA then successfully petitioned the California Supreme Court to take the case up for review, but the high court put the case on hold pending the disposition of a case with similar issues involving charges for trash and recycling pickup in Oakland. Once that case was resolved, the Supreme Court dismissed HJTA's petition for review and returned the case to the Court of Appeal.
Under the California Rules of Court, when the Supreme Court dismisses a petition for review, the opinion of the Court of Appeal remains in effect.
The 2019 and 2022 toll increases were not suspended during the case and the roughly $545 million collected was placed into escrow pending the conclusion of the litigation, according to a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
A third toll increase is scheduled for 2025 and it is anticipated that the tolls will ultimately provide $4.45 billion in capital funding for major transportation projects to relieve traffic congestion in the Bay Area, including $325 million for a Caltrain downtown San Francisco extension and $500 million for new BART cars.
Emily Loper, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy organization, said the release of the funds will await further procedural steps, but that the parties are "committed to unlocking the funds quickly to flow to these projects."
Loper said the Council "led the campaign to pass the measure in June 2018."
Tom Butt, until two weeks ago the mayor of the city of Richmond, was elated by the decision, which he said "includes hundreds of millions of dollars to relieve traffic congestion at the Richmond San Rafael bridge, including $75 million specially for the east end. It also includes $300 million for enhancing ferry service, including the Richmond ferry."
In an interview with Bay City News, Butt said that he never doubted the ultimate outcome but was disappointed that it took so long.
"It was kind of a no brainer, but you know these things have to work their way through the system," he said.