The pausing this past week of efforts to ram through a Bay Area bridge toll increase should prompt transit agencies — especially BART — to rethink how they are delivering service.
Public transportation remains critical to the region’s economy, reduction of carbon emissions and survival of those with no other means of transportation. But it must be provided in a cost-efficient way that realistically recognizes post-pandemic demand and ensures coordination, rather than duplication, of services.
We expect that state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, will try to resurface some variation of his proposed $1.50 bridge toll hike next year. And the Metropolitan Transportation Commission likely will push plans for a 2026 ballot measure to raise the region’s sales tax another half-cent to further fund commuter rail, buses and ferries.
Before they do, they should take the temperature of the region.
Wiener should note that he didn’t have the votes to push his toll increase through the Legislature. And that it also met stiff opposition from Bay Area members of Congress. If even progressive, Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to raise tolls, that should send a loud message.
Those talking of a sales tax hike should review MTC’s own polling in March of Bay Area voters showing that only 6% ride transit daily, just 21% ride at least once a week, nearly 40% say they are commuting less frequently than pre-COVID, and support for a sales tax increase falls well short of the needed two-thirds for passage.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t fund public transportation — and perhaps fund it more. This is to say that voters, Bay Area lawmakers and key business leaders are more likely to help transit agencies that help themselves.
They don’t want to keep spending more without any hope of reform. The Bay Area is already one of the nation’s most expensive places to live. We can’t simply keep piling on more tolls, fees or taxes without also closely examining how the existing funding is being spent.
Unfortunately, thus far, BART, the agency crying loudest for a bailout, has resisted any meaningful self-examination or change. It is time to bring in independent, outside experts to review the system’s operations from top to bottom.
Even though BART faces a $1 billion budget gap over the next five years and ridership has flattened over the past year at about 40% of pre-pandemic levels, a union-backed majority of the board refuses to even consider reasonable cuts, instead hiring more workers and running more trains.
Meanwhile, the Bay Area is laden with a mind-boggling web of 27 transit agencies. They provide costly overlapping and duplicative service, including across the bay, through downtown San Francisco and down the peninsula.
Service and fare coordination has been desperately needed for years. But transit leaders remain holed up in their agency silos, treating other transit systems as competitors rather than collaborators. There are efficiencies to be had here that will save money and provide better service for riders.
Yet, it is the chaos of the status quo for which Wiener wants to raise bridge tolls and MTC wants additional sales taxes — on top of the $1.2 billion Bay Area bailout that was included in a statewide transit package signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this summer.
Before receiving even more money, transit leaders need to demonstrate meaningful change. So far, we have seen no sign of it.
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