It is unusual to see a federal official weigh in on actions being taken in Sacramento, but Congressman Mark DeSaulnier felt compelled to do exactly that as the State Legislature considers a bill to raise Bay Area bridge fares during the final week of its session for 2017.
DeSaulnier, a Democrat who previously served in both houses in Sacramento as well as serving as a Contra Costa County supervisor, understands the issues around bridges and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission all too well.
During his time, he watched MTC, which doles out the state and federal money in the nine Bay Area counties, oversee construction of the new Bay Bridge that tripled in cost to more than $6.5 billion. It was also more than a decade late, some of which was due to political infighting.
Now the legislature is considering Senate Bill 595 that would raise bridge tolls by $3 (to $8 or $9 depending upon the time of day). That's a huge increase -- one that proponents are justifying by pointing to the congestion issues in the Bay Area. And, it would be permanent with increases linked to inflation.
It upset DeSaulnier enough that he wrote an opinion piece for the East Bay Times condemning the bill. Joining the party were Assemblyman Tim Grayson, a Democrat, who offered a similar opinion piece this month, while our Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a Republican, sent an email to constituents asking their opinion with a link to a critical editorial in the Times.
The core and valid argument is that East Bay commuters will pay the bulk of the higher tolls and receive substantially less of the benefits.
DeSaulnier argued that Contra Costa County motorists would contribute 18.4% of the revenue and receive less than 10% of the benefit. The two East Bay counties combined will pay about 49% and receive just 39% of the benefits.
It's particularly egregious when it comes to BART and Santa Clara County.
Santa Clara residents contribute just 2% of the bridge fare (basically, they have no need to cross bridges), but they would receive 23% of the benefit. Be serious. Santa Clara County voters, like residents in Alameda and Contra Costa, have voted for increases in the sales tax to support transportation improvements.
And then, there's BART that is in line for almost $1.1 billion, including $500 million for new train cars. New cars are critical to improving and expanding BART service. Voters passed a $3.5 billion bond issue for BART last year.
But, as the Times editorial board pointed out, there's no guarantee that BART officials won't shift money around within their budget so BART can continue to pay its inflated employee salaries and lucrative benefits.
There's been no belt-tightening at BART despite budget pressures and the need to replace capital equipment. The board and management have consistently given away the financial store to employee unions, and this bill will put more money into the overall budget.
One other key point that DeSaulnier made about the MTC. This is the outfit, "governed" by elected officials from throughout the nine Bay Area counties, that decided to spend bridge tolls to build its headquarters in San Francisco. That project, like almost anything else MTC touches, ran over budget -- more than $90 million over budget.
DeSaulnier also points out that the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco is now nearing twice the $1.19 billion budgeted.
Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty is the vice-chair of the agency and represents the county.
If the legislation happens to pass, then it will be critical for East Bay residents and elected officials to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to veto the legislation.
Given the free pass that the South Bay is given, it's likely that the powerful Silicon Valley organizations and companies will be lobbying for a signature. The same for businesses on the Peninsula and in San Francisco. State Sen. Jim Beall, who represents the South Bay, is the primary author of the bill.