Senate Bill 595: Are You Ready for $8 Bridge Tolls?

Central planning has a tendency to consume considerable resources solving problems it creates.  Some of the problems occurring in the San Francisco Bay Area have morphed into “crises,” such as the housing crisis.  Other problems are viewed as major inconveniences that must be treated as forcefully as one would a swarm of locusts.  Presently, in the latter category is traffic congestion.  Central planning encouraged concentrations of employers in relatively small areas, called for concentrations of housing and accompanying housing subsidies in prescribed corridors, and neglected transit.  The result is traffic congestion, a problem now in need of solution.  

In central planning, solutions come in the form of more legislation.  On October 10, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 595, Metropolitan Transportation Commission – Toll Bridge Revenues – BART Inspector General – Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority – High-occupancy toll lanes.  As the topic of this bill indicates, this regional legislation calls for administrative changes as well as funding.  The bill contains provisions for treatment of different kinds of vehicles, types of toll payments, occupancy, and peak traffic.  Here we will briefly mention two clauses in Senate Bill 595.
* SB 595 Creates the Office of the BART Inspector General, upon voter approval, and prescribes its roles and responsibilities.

The Nine-County Coalition has repeatedly offered examples of the trend towards bureaucratic rather than legislative management.  Tax payers are increasingly paying for elected officials who should be responsible and accountable for efficient management of their jurisdictions and also paying for unelected bureaucrats to oversee the elected officials.  As a result, cost of governing California keeps increasing and voters’ power at the ballot box decreasing – all without any guarantee that the oversight bureaucracies would be any more efficient or accountable than the elected officials.  

This clause was requested by Senator Steve Glazer, who has been critical of BART’s union-management issues. We certainly appreciate his concern.  However, a less expensive solution might be for voters to directly hold BART’s elected board accountable by voting incumbents out until the message is clear:  Do a good job or you are out.  

* The centerpiece of Senate Bill 595 is a toll increase of up to $3 on all Bay Area state-owned bridges, soon to appear in all nine county Bay Area ballots.

The bill states:  “To improve the quality of life and sustain the economy of the San Francisco Bay area, it is the intent of the Legislature to require the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to place on the ballot a measure authorizing voters to approve an expenditure plan to improve mobility and enhance travel options on the bridges and bridge corridors to be paid for an increase in the toll rate on the seven state-owned bridges within its jurisdiction.”

It will be up to the MTC to decide what the increase will be, as long as it is up to $3.  So, we need to wait to see whether we can afford the toll or not.

CA Highway Ranking

The up to $3 increase is not an increase in a user fee.  The spending plan calls for funds to be allocated to several transportation projects, such increasing the BART fleet, enhancing ferry service, funding BART to San Jose Phase 2, extending Caltrain to downtown San Francisco, expanding the SMART rail system.  Additionally, “the bill also includes a $150 million grant program to improve bicycle and pedestrian access to regional transit hubs and to close gaps in the San Francisco Bay Trail.”

Certainly, if residents choose public transportation systems, tax dollars are needed to fund those systems adequately.  The question here is what is adequate.  Do we simply pay until we see results, no matter how expensive that gets?  Do Californians insist on user fees rather than transportation taxes as means of determining true costs  – BART riders pay for BART, bridge users pay for bridges, bikers pay for bike lanes and bike trails, Caltrain riders pay for trains, etc.

The Reason Foundation Annual Highway Report is often quoted to show how California stacks up against other states.  In the 22nd Annual Highway Report, published September 2016, Reason ranked California 42nd out of 50 in overall state highway cost effectiveness, with a rank of 1 being the best and a rank of 50 being the very worst.