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Lawsuit to halt Bay Area bridge toll hikes fails

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Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says it won’t appeal for fear of setting precedent

A photo of cars approaching the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

Bay Area voters voters approved toll hikes in 2018 on eight of the region’s nine key bridges (minus the Golden Gate Bridge, which is not state-owned), and now a San Francisco Superior Court judge has thrown out an attempt by anti-tax agitators to block the increases from taking effect.

The San Francisco Examiner reports that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, is unlikely to appeal Judge Ethan P. Schulman’s decision for fear that losing at the appeals court will create a broad precedent that could come back to bite them in the future.

The toll law, passed in the legislature as Senate Bill 595 and later by voters as Regional Measure 3, pushes the price to cross the Bay Bridge up to $9 and tolls on other Bay Area bridges up to $8 by 2025. The money collected will be put toward transit costs.

In July of 2018, a few weeks after Regional Measure 3 passed, the Howard Jarvis Association sued the Bay Area Toll Authority in an attempt to block it, alleging that the toll hikes amounted to a tax increase and therefore should have needed at least two-thirds of the vote in order to pass.

The group’s director of legal affairs, Timothy A. Bittle, made a moralistic argument against RM3, leveraging the plight of the working class. In part, he writes:

Imagine you’re one of the thousands of waitresses, retail clerks, hotel housekeepers, or other blue-collar employees who work in San Francisco but can’t afford to live there. You live 30 or 40 miles from your job, in territory not served by BART. [...] Is it humane to take money from poor people who must drive long distances to and from work, and use that money to subsidize the commute of wealthier people?

But the actual suit hinged on the specifics of California law rather than Bittle’s appeals for commuters.

California voters passed Proposition 26 in 2010, which required that most increases to state “fees, levies, charges, and tax revenue allocations” require a two-thirds vote. (Proposition 26 itself fell well short of this margin, receiving 52.5 percent of the vote.)

However, Schulman ruled last week that “the legislature has met its burden to show the applicability of the exception for ‘entrance to or use of state property’ from the general definition of tax.”

Since the bridges are state-owned, under the law the state may reasonably impose a charge for their use similar to fees for entry to state parks—neither of which technically qualify as taxes since they’re conditional.

Schulman therefore ruled that RM3’s 55 percent of the vote proved sufficient enough to make it law.

RM3 was most popular in San Francisco, drawing more than 65 percent of the vote. The measure failed in Contra Costa County, where 55.46 percent of voters were against it, and in Solano County, where it went down with nearly 70 percent voting against it, but passed with at least 51.93 percent everywhere else.

The Golden Gate Bridge is exempt from RM3, but that span’s board of directors voted in March to raise tolls, up to $8.75 for most FasTrak users by 2023.

[Correction: RM3 applies to seven Bay Area bridges, not eight.]