Bay Area bridges toll-hike challenge heads to California Supreme Court

Amid a legal challenge to San Francisco Bay Area bridge tolls, an age-old battle of what constitutes a fee versus a tax has merged at the California Supreme Court.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association filed suit last week against the Bay Area Toll Authority over the legality of its $3 toll hike on seven Bay Area bridges.

Under Regional Measure 3, a 2017 ballot proposition approved by a simple majority of voters, the toll hikes are to be phased in between 2019 and 2025. As a result of the comprehensive suite of highway and transit improvements, toll revenues became a part of the solution to help finance a $4.45 billion transportation plan.

Transportation officials are concerned the legal challenge threatens the timing and budgets of these projects.

But plaintiffs make the claim the toll hikes, which include a $1 boost on bridge tolls in January 2022, are a tax and needed a two-thirds approval.

“This is a tax, plain and simple. It’s not a legitimate fee on motorists. The governor should have never signed this,” association Legal Affairs Director Tim Bittle told the Business Journal, referring to California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017.

The anti-tax advocacy group, known for its efforts behind Proposition 13’s fight against housing tax increases in 1978, joined legal forces with Oakland resident Randall Whitney. His petition was denied against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the finances of the toll authority.

“When one pauses to consider how often California residents and businesses use public property, the potential afforded by this decision for the government to siphon money from the private economy is frightening,” the legal argument from the taxpayer advocacy group reads.

MTC officials are concerned the legal filing will stall much-needed projects.

“It’s not surprising, but disappointing,” MTC spokesman John Goodwin said, insisting the legal challenge ties up long-awaited road projects funded through these toll revenues. “This will grind through the courts at least another year. It may be a couple of years. Time is money, and prices tend to go one way.”

In the North Bay, some of those projects include the ongoing widening of U.S. Highway 101, that highway’s $135 million connection with Interstate 580 East and the ambitious $100 million plan to elevate State Route 37 to alleviate flooding.

“Sitting in traffic affects our drivers and equipment. There are issues with that that are passed onto our customers. And let’s be real, this is going to affect the consumer,” said Stacey Biagi of Biagi Bros. Transportation & Warehousing in Napa.

Bittle disputed the idea the toll funding is just earmarked for commuters. The taxpayer association contends the funding goes toward other uses beyond infrastructure for the motoring public. Bittle listed ferries, buses, ship ports and bike trails as other recipients.

The state now imposes $6 tolls for the Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo-Hayward, Dumbarton, Carquinez, Antioch and Benicia-Martinez bridges. The Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland rakes in at least $5 from motorists. The Golden Gate Bridge is managed by its own, so-named district.

The legal challenge between the Toll Authority and Howard Jarvis group remains in limbo as the court reviews a similar, precedent-setting case — Zolly vs City of Oakland, which involves a legal fight over waste franchise fees.

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