In a crucial step towards maintaining and improving Bay Area public transportation, California Senator Scott Wiener's (D-San Francisco) Senate Bill 532 has successfully passed the Assembly Transportation Committee, according to Wiener's official website. The bill plans to raise the necessary funds via a bridge toll to avert service cuts and improve system safety, cleanliness, and reliability for Bay Area residents, and this legislative victory couldn't come at a better time.
As reported by KRON4, Bay Area transit agencies such as BART and Muni warned of a looming "fiscal cliff" due to the depletion of COVID relief funds, threatening to make major cuts to train and bus schedules this fall. This alarming situation has attracted attention and action from California lawmakers in a bid to ensure economic recovery and climate goals in the region. Senator Wiener's SB 532 is a significant step towards addressing this urgent need by temporarily raising the toll on the Bay Area's seven state-owned bridges by $1.50 and earmarking these crucial funds for transportation improvements.
Public transportation systems in the Bay Area experienced a steep decline in ridership during the pandemic, with numbers collapsing to only 5-10% of pre-pandemic levels. However, as per Wiener's website, numbers have been steadily recovering, with Muni's ridership increasing by 33% and BART's by nearly 50% over the past year. Despite the progress, concerns over safety, cleanliness, and reliability on public transport make some residents hesitant to return to their pre-pandemic commuting habits, thereby highlighting the importance of SB 532's measures.
Transit agencies have already begun implementing changes to address these concerns, with examples of improvements made by BART including increased police visibility, the presence of unarmed ambassadors, and more frequent deep cleaning of train cars. However, additional funds are necessary to maintain these changes and implement further improvements. The increase in bridge tolls, as proposed by SB 532, is expected to generate around $180 million annually to help prevent the impending service cuts and enhance the transit experience.
The bill also recognizes the need for financial equity in its provisions, ensuring that the toll increase primarily benefits lower-income transit riders who might be disproportionately impacted by service cuts. Additionally, the introduction of more equitable tolling systems, such as lowering or capping toll evasion penalties for low-income drivers, has either been included in SB 532 or is currently under discussion.