In summary

Tolls on San Francisco Bay Area bridges are rising sharply and that could affect the economy of a region still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How much is too much?

A few days ago, the toll for driving on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge took another jump. It will now cost motorists at least $6.75 to cross the entrance to San Francisco Bay – if they are using carpool lanes – and as much as $9.75 if they are invoiced for their crossing.

It appears the tolls are destined to climb even higher.

The iconic bridge is owned by the multi-county Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, whose directors have directed a series of toll increases over five years. They were done to cover rising maintenance costs and – this is the most important factor – offset a decline in traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic began three-plus years ago.

It’s an aspect of a larger phenomenon that has upended the San Francisco Bay Area’s economy. Many workers, particularly those in technology and financial services, shifted to working remotely when the pandemic struck and the work-from-home tendency has persisted after the health threat eased.

Downtown San Francisco suffered what some call a “doom loop” of reduced in-place employment, wholesale declines in office space usage and closure of retail businesses.

Fewer commuters also translated into lower bridge toll income and very sharp drops in transit use and revenues, particularly on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system.

BART and other transit systems pleaded with Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators for a package of state aid to offset declining farebox revenue and got a $5.1 billion, four-year commitment in the new state budget.

However, advocates complain, it’s not enough to fully finance continued operations, at least for BART and some other systems.

“Public transportation is easy to take for granted, but allowing it to collapse would have been devastating for our state’s future,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said. “This budget extends a critical lifeline that will help transit agencies maintain service while making critical improvements to cleanliness and safety.”

However, Wiener added, “the future of public transportation in the Bay Area is still under threat due to pandemic-related operational deficits that, without help, will lead to severe service cuts.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener

State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)

Scott Wiener

State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 11 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 62%
GOP 7%
No party 25%
Campaign Contributions

Sen. Scott Wiener has taken at least $904,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 13% of his total campaign contributions.

Wiener and other Bay Area legislators are proposing a $1.50 per vehicle hike on motorists who use the region’s seven state-owned bridges to provide transit systems with more operating revenue. The non-state Golden Gate Bridge would not be affected by the proposal but, as noted earlier, is already raising its prices.

The $1.50 toll increase has been amended into a Wiener bill, Senate Bill 532, that has already passed the Senate and is pending in the Assembly, which could lead to fast track (no pun intended) approval.

Auto tolls on the seven bridges are generally $7 now, so Wiener’s bill would boost them to $8.50, roughly in line with the new Golden Gate Bridge tolls.

“Bay Area transit ridership continues to climb, but it’s not happening quickly enough to make up for the loss of federal emergency assistance,” Wiener said. “SB 532 provides critical lifeline funding for our transit systems – ensuring they have the resources they need to provide safe, reliable service for our residents.”

How, one might wonder, would raising the already stiff tolls on Bay Area bridges impact a region that is struggling to recover economically from the pandemic?

Classic economics would say that increasing their commuting costs would make San Francisco’s workers even less likely to return to their cubicles and therefore hinder downtown recovery.

However, perhaps it would merely persuade them to take BART or other transit services, thus reducing auto traffic on the bridges, which in turn would decrease revenues from the new tolls.

How much is too much?

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...