In the last two budget cycles, California’s leaders elected to redirect some $3 billion away from transit agencies. But a proposed budget deal would now finish off the job and take the rest of what little remains: $230 million of State Transit Assistance funds due from the 2008-09 September budget, and the full $306 million from the 2009-10 budget. The proposed STA elimination would deprive agencies of critical operating funds, trigger service cuts and fare hikes, and result in a loss of jobs. The state budget does not have an easy fix, particularly while the two-thirds budget vote requirement remains in effect, and it is too soon yet to know if this proposed arrangement will stick. Sometimes it seems that each new week brings a new budget deal to be hatched, and the fate of this particular deal may not be decided on until later today or this weekend. But given the trend, the utter demise of state transit funding appears to be the unfortunate, yet inevitable, conclusion; if not now, then just around the corner. We have spoken before of the mismatch in California, in which our elected officials are more than happy to heap praise in broad strokes upon the environmental credentials of AB 32, SB 375, and high-speed rail, all while signing off on the one-way drain of transit funds that are then used to haphazardly plug the leaky state budget. This time, every last drop would be squeezed out, even if the funds to be removed are quite literally a few drops in the proverbial bucket. Our politicians are happy to call attention to their support of a forward-looking vision, though what once seemed visionary now looks increasingly to be merely necessary damage control. But actually protecting transit service, the foundation that underlies that vision? That is another matter altogether.
In a way, it resonates with the transportation provisions that appear in the final compromise stimulus bill — even though that was a federal effort that added money rather than removing it. There, we saw victory handed to another forward-thinking vision, with the allocation of $8 billion of stimulus funds for high-speed rail. To be sure, there was also $8.4 billion for transit formula grants as well, but no desperately needed operations funding. While the increased influx of money to rail is encouraging, the House’s more generous (and more equitably distributed) transit funding solution post-Nadler would have been preferable, in that it would have provided additional investment for more local systems that serve many purposes, including to support and complement the successful high-speed rail system that has emerged as a priority for the Obama Administration.
While we are are hesitant to use a road-based analogy, it suffices as an illustration: for as much as one might speak about the benefits of building a world-class rapid autobahn, the autobahn can never realize its full potential if the only arteries feeding into it are dirt paths.