The California Supreme Court issued a ruling Wednesday ending a nearly five-year legal battle for over $545 million in Bay Area bridge tolls.
The dispute surrounded Regional Measure 3, or RM3, a ballot measure first approved by Bay Area voters in 2018 for consecutive $1 toll increases in 2019, 2022 and 2025 to alleviate toll bridge corridor congestion. Shortly after the measure was approved, two lawsuits were filed against the Bay Area Toll Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, to the Superior Court: one by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, or HJTA, and one by Contra Costa County resident Randall Whitney, according to John Goodwin, a spokesperson for the MTC.
“Due to the litigation, all those funds have been held in escrow,” Goodwin said. “As of Jan. 19 of this year, the total in the escrow account was $545.6 million.”
The HJTA plaintiffs argued that SB-595, the bill that authorized the toll increase, would allegedly be considered a state tax that did not receive two-thirds approval in the state legislature. The Bay Area Toll Authority won the consolidated case at the Superior Court level, and the plaintiffs appealed the ruling, to which RM3 was sustained again by the state appellate court, Goodwin noted. HJTA and Whitney petitioned for the California Supreme Court to hear the case, whose decision this past week aided in starting the release of toll funds.
“There are some final instructions to be given to us by the appellate court that will clarify precisely what processes must be taken to finally unlock these dollars that have been held in escrow all these years,” Goodwin said.
The lack of access to funds from RM3 have delayed at least one project, the new ferry terminals in the works by the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, Goodwin noted. Although, he added that most other projects in the RM3 expenditure plan involve streams of revenue from multiple sources.
The downtown Caltrain extension met an increase in cost forecast earlier this month, likely exceeding six billion dollars, Goodwin noted. RM3 identifies the project as a recipient of $320 million in toll funds, he added.
“It’s a combination of federal, state, local and regional dollars that are needed to take a project from conception to construction to completion,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin noted that project sponsors usually require local funding sources to qualify for federal funding for a transportation project. Thus, such regional funds, like RM3, allow Bay Area projects to compete for federal funding, he said.
Goodwin hopes that the long saga of RM3 through the court system will endorse the validity of regional measures as a way for voters to legitimately fund their own transportation improvements. He added that these projects support mobility for future generations of Bay Area residents.
Adam Omar, a first year student at UC Berkeley who often commutes to and from San Francisco, said the environment and conditions of current public transportation options are substandard and is in favor of the court ruling.
“It really benefits students knowing that other transportation in the Bay Area such as BART is going to be funded much more in terms of projects/renovations,” Omar said in an email.