Voters get shorted on transit funding
Op-ed article, Daily News, February 16, 2009
Last November, despite many politicians' naysaying, the voters of Los Angeles County took the bold step of approving a 30-year sales tax to fund not only a variety of public transportation projects, but also an operating subsidy to improve transit service levels.
Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature want to undo, in part, that positive step taken by the voters.
A "deal" regarding the state budget includes the suspension of the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund, which is where part of the sales taxes collected on gasoline sales are allocated. Unfortunately, this is also the only state funding that is legally allowed to be used for the operation of bus and rail transit.
This budget deal, which apparently has been agreed to in principle by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg, will cut $536 million between now and June 2010 from the collective pockets of California's transit agencies. In Los Angeles County, Metro calculates its portion of the lost STA funds at over $136 million between now and June 2009 and $227 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year, or about 15% of the budget to operate Metro's bus and rail lines.
Guess what will be tapped to backfill that loss? That's right -- the Measure R funds that the voters approved to increase service but will now be used just to maintain the status quo.
Making matters worse, the Measure R operating subsidy won't be enough to replace all of the lost state funds, so Metro may still have to cut as much as 160,000 hours of bus service next year to bridge the gap. So, even though the voters of Los Angeles County voted for an increase in service, the lawmakers in Sacramento will make it necessary for Metro to reduce service instead.
What a slap in the face to the public, who have now voted three times -- Proposition 42, Proposition 1A, and Measure R -- to dedicate funds for transportation improvements, only to find their ballot box directives ignored and undermined by politics in Sacramento.
The governor defends this deal by pointing out that funding for transit capital projects is being left largely untouched. But he fails to grasp the reality that there is little point to building a new rail line, or expanding a bus fleet, if there isn't going to be money available to operate them. The leadership of the Legislature isn't saying much of anything on the subject, because they likely don't understand the implications, despite advocacy organizations' attempts to educate them.
And, late last week, word arrived that the Legislature is now considering a measure to suspend the STA for a total of five years, which would increase Metro's deficit to somewhere around $900 million. At a cost of $100 per hour of bus service, that's a lot of hours left unfunded.
Business as usual at the State Capitol -- public transit consumers waiting in vain. And voters left to wonder what happened.