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Editorial: Traffic lightening initiative stuck in gridlock

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No good voter-approved, traffic-ameliorating, greenhouse gas reducing deed goes unpunished.

At least that’s how it looks now that a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will apparently throw a wrench into the works of multiple Bay Area highway projects intended to upgrade the region’s most congested thoroughfares and get commuters out of their weekday bumper-to-bumper grind.

Regional Measure 3, the initiative on the June ballot which required a simple majority to pass and went on to earn about 55 percent voter approval, raises tolls by $3 over a six-year period on seven state-operated Bay Area bridges, with its expected $125 million per year in revenue going toward recalibrating such commuter slogs as the Highway 101 Sonoma-Marin Narrows, Highway 37 near Sears Point and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s planned expansion to Windsor.

More than 100,000 Bay Area residents face “super commutes” of 90 minutes or more to work each day, according to a study of U.S. Census data released last year. RM3 was sold as an ambitious plan to confront and mitigate such mind-numbing commutes.

But the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the fervent anti-tax lobby that tries to tie up tax and fee increases with lawsuits because the group can’t prevail at the ballot box, is now suing the Bay Area Toll Authority on behalf of three East Bay plaintiffs to stop Measure 3. The HJTA filed the suit last summer, but its effects begin Jan. 1, when bridge tolls increase by a dollar and the revenue turns to frozen assets in legal limbo.

The Howard Jarvis argument is that the MR3 bridge-toll increase is really a tax, since its revenues will be spent not merely on bridge upkeep, but on broader benefits to the public such as bike paths and public transportation improvements. And, they point out, any tax needs two-thirds voter approval to pass, according to state law.

If a Howard Jarvis lawsuit sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably heard about them before. The group is also suing San Francisco over its recently voter-approved Measure C special tax, the County of Los Angeles over political advertising funds and the state over its CalSavers retirement savings plan.

And those are just its lawsuits filed since May.

The Howard Jarvis let’s-sue-‘em playcard is as nearly as old as complaints about taxes themselves. And, of course, it isn’t designed to win; though some legal moves may occasionally prevail in court, that’s not the point. The goal is to tie up legislation in the courts in order to stymie initiatives – to obstruct. If they can’t win in the court of public opinion, they can simply delay in the court of law. It’s the next best thing – at least, that is, for everyone but the average Bay Area commuter, two-thirds of whom drive alone in their cars to work every day.

To be clear, a legitimate taxpayer-advocate group to act as a reasonable check on government-levy overreach is a necessity in any healthy democracy. But Howard Jarvis isn’t that -- an advocate for fair and reasonable taxes. Rather, it positions itself as an advocate for as few taxes as humanly possible – no matter how much the revenue would benefit the average Californian, and no matter how many residents are in support.

Regional Measure 3 is an attempt to deal with legitimate and, in some cases, dire problems in the Bay Area – a lot of them. Traffic congestion on myriad freeways; sea-level rise on Highway 37; funding roadblocks to such public transportation systems as the SMART train and BART; the lack of safety on aged, deteriorating roadways. And the encompassing contribution it all adds to the climate change that could cost trillions a century from now if we don’t confront its near-certain ramifications today.

And perhaps the direst problem of all: The massive waste of commuters’ and businesses’ time and money spent having workers – i.e. taxpayers, bridge-toll payers – sitting in cars for hours a day between work and home – and all the mental stress, depressing isolation and dehumanizing subjugation to AM talk radio that accompanies it.

Last year, the INRIX Global Congestion Ranking placed the Bay Area fifth on its list of the worst traffic congestion in the world – with the average driver spending more than three whole days a year in gridlock at a cost of $2,250 in wasted time and expense.

RM3 advocates expect the Howard Jarvis case to be quickly dismissed and we hope they’re right.

Time is perhaps one’s greatest commodity. And right now 100,000 Bay Area residents are spending theirs riding a bumper.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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