Lawsuit seeking to block bridge toll hike fails

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued in July to block Regional Measure 3

A court case challenging Bay Area bridge toll hikes has come to a close — and the tolls will stay.

A San Francisco Superior Court Judge has ruled in favor of the Bay Area Toll Authority, finding that the $4.5 billion June 2018 ballot measure known as Regional Measure 3, which would raise all Bay Area bridge tolls except for the Golden Gate Bridge, is not a tax.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a taxpayer advocacy group, filed a lawsuit suit arguing that the toll hike was actually a tax, which would require a two-thirds majority vote. Regional Measure 3 was approved by a 55 percent majority.

The ruling may see previously frozen funds finally flowing into the coffers of Bay Area transit agencies, some of which had stalled major projects waiting for the promised bridge toll funding that hung in the balance with that court decision.

Judge Ethan Schulman issued an order finding in the Bay Area Toll Authority’s favor on April 3. On Monday morning, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association Director of Legal Affairs Tim Bittle told the San Francisco Examiner that it is unlikely the association would appeal the decision as they view the risk as too high.

“We lost,” he said. “We’re nervous about the decision. We’re afraid if we lost on appeal and got a published appellate decision, that could open a new loophole that state and local governments would drive a truck through.”

Responding to the initial ruling last week, MTC Chair Scott Haggerty said in a statement, “We are pleased, of course, by the court’s ruling. We will await further action by the court and look forward to evaluating next steps.”

A Howard Jarvis win would have nullified Regional Measure 3. Across the Bay Area, transit agencies feared their promised funding would not be fulfilled, which would see hundreds of millions of dollars flow to the purchase of new BART cars, the Caltrain downtown extension, the purchase of new ferries and the expansion of San Francisco’s Muni fleet.

“This is a huge win for California’s ability to deliver critical transportation projects,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a frequent transit advocate. “As the Bay Area grows, our public transportation systems must keep up. Otherwise, today’s congestion will seem like child’s play in a few years. And that means paying for that infrastructure.”

And the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which serves as the toll authority, prepared for the worst by funneling funding from the bridge toll hike into escrow.

In his ruling, Judge Ethan Schulman said plainly that the bridge tolls were not a tax subject to a two-thirds supermajority vote, as the California State Legislature has “met its burden” to show that bridge tolls are an exception to one definition of a tax in the California constitution. That definition states charging for “an entrance to or use of state property” is defined as a tax, and was one claim made by the Howard Jarvis Tax Association in arguing the bridge tolls constituted a tax.

Bittle said “the judge basically decided that entrance to our use of a state bridge should be analyzed the same as a rental or sale of state property. No rules apply to it, the state can charge whatever it wants, and can use the money however it wants.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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