Transit Officials Predict Trouble from Proposed Cutbacks

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 18, 2007

With some predictions that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new budget proposals could have severe effects on the East Bay’s public transit system, East Bay transit officials and its powerful trio of state legislators are indicating that a fight is in the works. 

Because of a projected $2.2 billion shortfall in state income, the governor is proposing siphoning off some $200 million more in public transportation funds from the state’s General Fund, on top of some $630 million Schwarzenegger proposed to move from public transportation to the General Fund in his original January budget. The budget update is part of what is commonly known as the “May Revise,” when California governors recalculate their originally-submitted budget after more information on real revenue and expenditures is gathered. 

In an explanation of the new budget figures on the governor’s website, the administration calls it a “fiscally responsible” May Revise, saying that the revisions “maintain (the governor’s) commitment to aggressively pay down debt, restrain spending and build the state’s reserve while fully funding education and maintaining California’s public safety, environmental and health care priorities. The May Revision achieves these goals without raising taxes, and maintains some of the nation’s highest funding to support vulnerable populations.” 

The administration report also noted that “California is investing more in its transportation system than ever before under the Governor’s leadership,” citing, among other things, voter passage last November of a bond measure “to relieve traffic congestion on California's overcrowded roads, expand the state's mass transit and rail systems and improve air quality near California’s ports.” 

But the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office immediately concluded that it did “not believe that the administration’s transportation proposal is workable,” the LAO adding that “it would not provide the assumed $830 million in savings.” 

And in a letter to local transit agencies sent out immediately following the release of the May Revise, the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC) said that, taken with other cutbacks, “the Governor’s budget would give the Bay Area only 30% of the public transit funds that they are legally entitled to.” TALC estimated that the cuts would cost BART “over $21 million in funds they were relying on,” adding that the governor’s new budget “would result in a $10 million gash in AC Transit’s operating budget.” The TALC letter said that the state fund shortfall could cause AC Transit to either raise fares or cut service, or both. 

Calling the governor’s proposal “bad for BART,” the Bay Area Rapid Transit District said that the $21 million funding loss could halt plans for additional customer service expenditures by the district, including the hiring of more police officers, adding more trains on nights and weekends, and adding more connector buses to BART stations. In addition, BART says that the governor’s new budget could result in delaying $38 million in state money the district had earmarked for earthquake retrofitting of the tube under the bay. 

Referring to the recent truck accident that led to the collapse of a portion of the MacArthur Maze freeway, BART Board President Lynette Sweet said in a prepared statement that "two weeks ago today the Governor saw just how important BART and other public transit is to the Bay Area. We are grateful for his decision to make public transit free to help alleviate traffic congestion [following that collapse]. But it’s stunning that, not two weeks later, his revised budget makes deep cuts to the operating and expansion budgets of the very transit agencies that have come to the rescue of the tens of thousands of drivers who today continue to rely on us as we wait for crews to repair the freeway.” 

And AC Transit Assistant General Manager for Communications and External Affairs said “it is always a battle [in Sacramento] at this time of the year. And, unfortunately, public transit is not in many circles a very ‘sexy’ issue.” 

Meanwhile, the governor’s public transportation cutback proposals brought immediate opposition from local legislators, who will now deliberate and vote on the governor’s proposed budget. 

“I think the proposed cuts would be devastating in their effect on public transportation,” Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said in a telephone interview. For AC Transit, Hancock said that the cuts “would likely result in fare increases and route cutbacks, which would result in fewer people riding the buses, and a further loss in revenue. It’s a downward spiral. With 80 percent of greenhouse gases coming from auto pollution, and a good proportion of that coming from single-person auto trips, the governor ought to be increasing money to public transportation rather than decreasing it if he is serious about addressing the problem of global warming.” 

Hancock added that “these cuts can’t stand,” and said that “I think you’re going to see a lot of negotiating in the next month.” 

And in a prepared statement, Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland), who sits on the Assembly Budget Committee and will have one of the first cracks at the May Revise, said “Bay Area residents are all too familiar with gridlock and overly congested freeways. This is why they have always taken advantage of our world class public transportation system to help relieve the pressure on our road systems. On top of that, the people in my District take pride in the part they play in reducing the threat of global warming. I believe that the budget should provide for investing in public transportation so that it reflects our growing population and our State’s commitment to creating a greener system for commuting. The proposed transportation cuts are moving in the wrong directions for these priorities. I will be fighting in Sacramento for a budget that reflects my district’s priorities.” 

In remarks reported in the online California Progress Report, Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland) said that “it looks like, once again, the most vulnerable Californians are in the free-fire zone,” adding that “if you look at this budget, there is no rhyme or reason to anything that is being done. I would defy anybody to sit down and plot this out and say this is the fiscal policy of the state of California. It’s not there.” 

BART and AC Transit plan to count heavily on Hancock, Swanson, and Perata in a lobbying fight to prevent the governor’s proposed public transportation cutbacks. In this fight, AC Transit would appear to have an inside track, at least with Perata. Ward Three Board Director Elsa Ortiz (representing Alameda and portions of Oakland and San Leandro) currently serves as Special Counsel to Perata on issues affecting Indian Nations. And Ortiz is no stranger to the legislature, having previously served as chief of staff to Perata’s predecessor in the senate president’s position, Bill Lockyer.