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California Transit Is Barreling Toward a Fiscal Cliff, Officials Warn

In particularly dire language, lawmakers, transit officials and others are urging the state Legislature in California to shore up public transit budgets before they descend off of a “fiscal cliff.”

A BART train stopped in a station.
Public transit leaders and advocates in California are pleading with the state Legislature and governor’s office for state funding help as multiple agencies face fiscal cliffs amid declining ridership, inflation and other headwinds.

“We are in the red zone right now, when it comes to public transportation in the state of California,” said state Sen. Scott Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, in comments at a May 30 press conference outside of the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Sacramento.

“Public transportation right now is in crisis. And if we do not act to save it, we will cause deep and lasting damage to California’s economy, our environment, our housing affordability, and our quality of life,” he added.

Weiner and other supporters are imploring the legislative budget process to shore up local transit agencies with some $5 billion in state funding over the next five years. This funding, characterized as a lifeline for transit, was not included in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal. In a revised budget proposal, the governor’s office is trying to close a $32 billion budget shortfall.

The additional funding could come from excess federal highway funding or from the state’s cap-and-trade program, said Weiner.

Major transit operators like the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) or the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) say they will be forced to cut service and lay off workers if state funding does not come through. Also, capital projects could be in jeopardy, since federal funding for these efforts is generally contingent on an agency match.

Muni has indicated it will be forced to eliminate 20 bus lines if the crisis is not averted.

Meanwhile, BART has suggested it may be forced to end weekend service, stop weekday service at 9 p.m., and eliminate “an entire BART line.”

“Service cuts of this magnitude can trigger what we call a transit death spiral where service cuts lead to more riders choosing other transportation options, and thus further reducing ridership,” said Weiner.

One-time federal funds, which were part of pandemic relief money, are running low, and will not fund BART beyond 2025, said Rebecca Saltzman, director, BART board of directors.

“New funding is needed or BART must begin making severe cuts to service and staffing,” she told reporters, saying some of these cuts could come as soon as this year.

“These devastating service cuts would turn away riders and send transit into a death spiral that would dramatically impact the quality of life in the Bay Area for everyone. Not just transit riders,” said Saltzman.

The problems in California are not unique.

Transit agencies across the nation have been suffering following the COVID-19 pandemic which altered work habits, commuters and patterns, and has proven especially challenging for those systems that depend heavily on fare-box revenue.

“We know that this is not just a California problem, it’s a national problem,” said California state Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, representing the East Bay and cities like Oakland and Berkeley, stressing the importance around the need for additional state funding, saying that without it agencies will be pushed toward a “fiscal cliff that puts us into a doom loop that we cannot recover from. And that is my fear.”

“California transit agencies are asking for a hand up, and bridge forward, not a handout,” said Michael Pimentel, executive director of the California Transit Association, which represents 85 transit agencies in California.

The industry has taken steps to fine-tune efficiencies and services, said Pimentel. To encourage lawmakers to release aid for transit, officials stress their support of “accountability and reform measures.”

“In the absence of this funding, we will face service cuts and layoffs across the state,” said Pimentel.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.