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Lawmakers float bridge toll hike to save BART, Muni

A multi lane highway backed up with traffic
Cars are backed up at the Bay Bridge toll plaza in Oakland during the commute to San Francisco on March 1, 2023. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Bay Area commuters could pay higher bridge tolls under a new plan to shore up insolvent public transit agencies after the pandemic decimated ridership and the dollars brought in from fares.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced legislation Monday that would increase bridge tolls in the region—excluding the Golden Gate Bridge, which is independently managed—by $1.50 over a five-year period. He said the temporary increase in tolls from Senate Bill 532 is estimated to raise $900 million and should be seen as an act of “financial self-help” to rescue Bay Area transit agencies, including BART, Muni and Caltrain.

“The question you have to ask yourself is: Will the Bay Area be a better place or a worse place if we see massive transit service cuts?” Wiener said.

State Sen. Scott Wiener announces a new transit bill on June 26, 2023. Wiener wants to increase bridge tolls to help fund public transit agencies in the Bay Area.

BART, which relies on fares more than most other transit systems in the state, saw its ridership drop 90% to 95% during the pandemic. The system and others would have collapsed without hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

The toll hikes Wiener and other Democrats are proposing would serve as a temporary fix, he said. He added that a ballot measure will eventually need to be put to the region’s voters to create a sustainable revenue source.

Federal funds for Bay Area public transit will run out in the next 12 to 24 months, Wiener said, making the bridge toll hikes necessary. This funding would come on the heels of a $2.5 billion bailout the Legislature included in the upcoming state budget, which is still being finalized.

State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Palo Alto, said that the Bay Area “can’t function” without public transit, pointing to the influx of traffic brought on by events like Pride this past weekend in San Francisco.

However, not every Bay Area lawmaker was ready to hop aboard Wiener’s plan. State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, issued a statement saying that local transit agencies have a “trail of broken promises” and should be held more accountable. He called for the Office of Inspector General to have broader authority to vet BART’s finances.

“I recognize and support the need for public transit investment,” Glazer said. “However, I will vigorously oppose any bridge toll increase until, at a minimum, the powers of the Office of Inspector General are fully restored.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee, D-San Jose, who joined Wiener at Monday’s news conference, noted that his own district includes the end of the line for BART in the South Bay, and many people “take for granted” the vital role public transit plays in preventing a “death spiral” of traffic and congestion on roadways.

“I’m here to tell you, across the world, with very few exceptions, transit agencies have to be subsidized,” Lee said.

Wiener stressed that the fiscal cliff local transit agencies are facing did not come from mismanagement, but rather from the pandemic and its lingering impact as many people continue to work from home.

Muni ridership sits at 66% of pre-pandemic levels, Wiener said, while BART has a little over 40% of the riders it had in early 2020. However, he noted that both the San Francisco and regional transit agencies have seen ridership grow by about a third from last year.

Wiener’s office said the bill would go into effect at the beginning of next year if it passes out of both chambers of the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it into law.