California Supreme Court rejects lawsuit against 2018 transit funding measure.

The California Supreme Court
dismissed a lawsuit
that challenged a 2018 ballot measure aiming to raise billions of dollars for transit and highway projects through toll hikes at seven state-owned Bay Area bridges.

The Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday ends a yearslong legal dispute that prevented transit agencies from accessing funds raised through
Regional Measure 3, which Bay Area voters
approved nearly five years
ago with 55% of the vote.

Though the measure was put on the ballot through state legislation signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued to halt the toll increases. The group argued that the toll hikes equated to a local tax that required a two-thirds vote under state law because it funds projects that would benefit the general public, not just users of the bridges.

Local transit officials criticized the group’s lawsuit as it made its way up to the state’s highest court, saying it imperiled funds already approved by voters for many high-profile transit projects.

“With transportation funding in decline and on the chopping block, today’s ruling couldn’t have come at a more critical time for the Bay Area,” said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council business group. “It’s a shame it took so long to beat back this ridiculous legal challenge, but it’s now time to start putting this money to work upgrading and improving our transit and other transportation systems.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been generated through the toll increases that went into effect in 2019 and last year, when bridge tolls went up to $7. Tolls will go up another $1 in 2025. Those funds have remained in an escrow account, out of reach of BART, Muni and other transit agencies with
capital projects that stand to benefit
from the $4.45 billion generated by Regional Measure 3.

The measure will help fund several major projects across the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Bay Ferry’s expansion to a Mission Bay terminal near Chase Center, as well as BART’s ongoing replacement of its old train cars and its expansion to downtown San Jose. Caltrain’s
$6.5 billion extension to Salesforce Transit Center
will also benefit, as will an effort to expand the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s service northward to Windsor and Healdsburg.

Toll funds will also go toward creating more express lanes throughout Bay Area highways, increasing transbay bus service, and building a direct freeway connector from northbound Highway 101 in Marin County to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, according to the measure’s expenditure plan.

The measure doesn’t include any operational funds for Bay Area transit agencies
facing severe financial cliffs, though it could help indirectly because several agencies, such as BART, used other funding pots to advance projects in the absence of RM3 funds.

“We are extremely gratified by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said Alfredo Pedroza, a Napa County supervisor who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Commission board. “While we await final procedural orders from the Court of Appeal, we look forward to moving quickly to unlock the toll funds approved by voters and to putting those dollars to work on long-needed projects to improve mobility and create new jobs across the Bay Area.”

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ByRicardoCano

Read More: California Supreme Court rejects lawsuit against 2018 transit funding measure.

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