At least seven California representatives have expressed “strong” concern over proposed state legislation that would raise tolls on a number of Bay Area bridges, saying this would unfairly impact mostly lower-income residents

In a letter addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Senate and Assembly leaders, U.S. Representatives Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, and Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, pointed out that the toll hikes outlined by the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Bay Area Public Transportation Emergency Act or Senate Bill 532 would result in Bay Area drivers possibly paying around $9.50 to cross just one bridge by 2025.

SB 532 proposes to raise tolls by $1.50 on seven Bay Area bridges in 2024, and if passed would implement the fourth such toll hike on the region’s bridges in six years. The revenue from this raise would be transferred to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for allocation to transit operators that provide service within the Bay Area and are experiencing a financial shortfall.

“We’re concerned that this legislation will disproportionately impact our constituents and low-income communities who depend on driving for their transportation to and from work. …”

Letter from state congressional representatives to Gov. Gavin Newsom

However, analysis of bridge toll users has shown that these costs are unfairly being borne in part by low- to moderate-income, car-dependent Bay Area residents who must commute across bridges because they cannot afford to live near where they work, the lawmakers said.

“We’re concerned that this legislation will disproportionately impact our constituents and low-income communities who depend on driving for their transportation to and from work, and ultimately does not provide long-term, sustainable solutions for some of the operating issues of the Bay Area public transit agencies,” the letter read.

East Bay pays majority of tolls

The lawmakers also cited data from bridge toll transactions showing that around 59 percent of the toll payers on the Bay Area bridges come from just three East Bay counties — Alameda with 27.5 percent, Contra Costa County with 19.7 percent, and Solano with 11.8 percent.

On the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge alone, where over 31 million toll transactions occurred in one year, 52 percent of the toll payers came from Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Traffic flows on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on May 27, 2019. It is one of seven state-operated toll bridges in the Bay Area, all of which are vital connections with San Francisco and nearby metropolitan employment centers for millions of commuters daily. (.freeside./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)

Additionally, the percentage of bridge drivers originating from Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties has increased since 2015, and now accounts for almost 31 percent of toll transactions, the lawmakers said in the letter.

Unpaid toll violations are yet another indicator of the disproportionate impact of toll hikes on vulnerable communities, according to the lawmakers. Four of the five zip codes with the most unpaid toll violations are majority non-white, have higher rates of limited English-speaking households, and have higher rates of poverty than the Bay Area as a whole, and four of them are located in Contra Costa and Solano Counties.

“The impacts on all constituents in the Bay Area must be considered. Many employees now have the advantage to do their work from home. There are others, the working people of the Bay Area, that don’t share this advantage, and the proposed toll hike comes straight out of their wallets,” the letter further stated.

Seeking a cost-benefit analysis

Alongside DeSaulnier and Eshoo, five other lawmakers indicated their opposition to the bill, including U.S. Representatives John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Linda Sanchez, D-Whittier; Eric Swalwell, D-Livermore; and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

The lawmakers concluded their letter by laying out a number of asks for the proponents of SB 532, including a cost-benefit analysis of the impact of the proposed increase in bridge tolls on the average daily driver of these affected Bay Area bridges; a plan for independent oversight of both the distribution of funds by MTC to the Bay Area transit agencies and the usage of funds by Bay Area transit agencies; and an analysis of which transit agencies will receive support from these funds, and their areas of service, compared to the drivers that pay the tolls.

The Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public-policy advocacy group has said it is siding with DeSaulnier, Eshoo and the other lawmakers in opposing SB 532.

“Before yet again asking motorists to dig deep and pay more in tolls, let’s have a complete and honest review of our region’s transit system, and ensure that we are delivering on reliability, efficiency, safety and connectivity among the 27 operating agencies,” Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman said in a statement.