LOS ANGELES - A California legislative panel is set to consider a bill that would put a Bay Area bridge toll increase to a public vote and potentially generate billions of dollars of additional revenue to back bonds.
Senate Bill 595 would ask voters in and around San Francisco to approve a toll increase of up to $3 on seven state-owned bridges. Introduced by San Jose Democrat Sen. Jim Beall, who also sponsored the state’s recent transportation funding legislation, the bill has already passed out of the Senate and now awaits action by the Assembly’s Transportation Committee.
The ballot question would be called Regional Measure 3, or RM3. In addition to approving toll increases to be collected by the Bay Area Toll Authority to fund projects and programs by transferring funds to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission or by bonding, the bill states that the legislature intends to create a transportation inspector general to conduct audits and investigations of activities involving any toll revenue generated by RM3. Bay Area voters have approved similar toll increases before, RM1 in 1988 and RM2 in 2004.
Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs at the MTC, said the committee is set to hear the bill Thursday, but it is unclear whether a specific spending plan for new revenues will be presented at that time. The BATA already has statutory authority to increase tolls to meet debt service and for certain other purposes, but a legal spending directive will eventually govern the regional measure. The bill would bar BATA from increasing toll rates except as directed by the legislature and to meet bond obligations.
“All these details, we do not know,” Rentschler said.
If a $3 dollar toll increase does come to pass, he added, it would likely be phased in over time. The standard toll on the seven bridges is $5, collected only in one direction; on the busiest bridge, the San Francisco Oakland-Bay Bridge, the toll ranges from $4 to $6.
Though supported by the MTC and some other local government, labor, and business interests, there is some opposition to giving the MTC more money before steps are taken to ensure accountability in how it is spent. Assemblymember Marc Levine, D-Marin County, requested last month that the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee review program management and cost overruns by the MTC, BATA, and California Department of Transportation, but the request was not approved. Levine said in a statement that the request was a direct result of the legislative proposal to put RM3 to the voters.
“Voters should get an audit before voting on a $3 toll increase,” he said. “MTC’s inaccurate assessment of costs has left taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in cost overruns. Transparency and accountability are important. If we are going to raise tolls, we need to make sure the money is being spent wisely and properly.”
If approved by the Assembly without amendments, the bill would be ready for the Governor’s signature. If it is amended, the differences between the two versions would first need to be resolved.