Editorial: Bay Area highway cash in jeopardy

As the all-too-predictable backroom biting and clawing for bigger chunks of November’s $37 billion public works bond package gets into full swing, a fierce attack is under way. The objective: to remove the matchingstate grants for Bay Area highway projects funded partially by bridge toll increase measures.

Facing a mid-January deadline, the California Transportation Commission is busily honing its guidelines for distribution of a special $1 billion allotment within the $20 billion transportation bond. This $1 billion money pot was set aside to reward 19 counties — including San Francisco and San Mateo — that went ahead and increased their sales taxes to pay for road construction and other transportation enhancements.

A preliminary working group, consisting mainly of local transportation officials from throughout California, was unable to agree on whether bridge tolls should be included — along with sales taxes and developer fees — in the money eligible for matching state funds. They simply tossed this hot potato back to the commission for debate as part of the draft guidelines to be submitted to the Legislature early next year.

Our regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission estimated that the Bay Area would lose tens of millions of dollars if toll revenues are shut out of the state matching formula. And, of course, every dollar diverted from the Bay Area becomes fair game for the state’s major population nexus in Southern California, where the largest number of votes exist.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said flatly that the Legislature will make bridge tolls eligible for matching funds, because there is no difference between sales taxes and toll increases, all of which are approved by direct ballot referenda. This is encouraging, but who knows what convoluted last-minute secret deal might emerge from the pipeline to trade away our toll-matching eligibility?

In Regional Measure 1 and Regional Measure 2, passed by voters in 1988 and 2004, the Bay Area voluntarily increased its tolls from $1 to $3 on state-owned local bridges, in exactly the same way as Bay Area voters have directly approved transportation-oriented sales taxes such as San Mateo County’s half-cent Measure A.

It should be pointed out that Regional Measure 2 was largely the result of stonewalling by Southern California legislators and Gov. Schwarzenegger about what the state should be expected to pay toward the rapidly escalating costs of the long-delayed seismic upgrade of the Bay Bridge.

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