|Courtesy of AC Transit.|
The AC Transit Board of Directors held a meeting to confront head-on the risk that the agency’s current financial crisis poses to its planned 17-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) project, which would extend from downtown Berkeley to San Leandro, via Telegraph Avenue, downtown Oakland, and East 14th Street. The State has postponed allocating an important chunk of funding for BRT, which will delay the project. AC Transit also plans to cut about 15% of its service hours to set right its operating deficit. The agency is thus considering using BRT funds to enhance its operating budget. Doing so would alleviate the pain of service cuts, but it would also put on hold a major regional project that is the centerpiece of AC Transit’s planning vision.
The directors finally decided upon a compromise solution, authorizing some of the money to be redirected toward operations and restore some service that was to be cut. However, they also decided to hold onto another portion of the funding, at least for now. That likely won’t be the end of the story.
The discussion revolves around the two pots of money that AC Transit has considered tapping into. The first pot of money is from the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), which is a federal program that provides money for surface transportation projects that improve air quality and reduce congestion. The second pot of money is Regional Measure 2 (RM2), a bridge toll increase authorized by Bay Area voters in 2004, the proceeds of which are spent on transportation projects that have some nexus to improving congestion in a bridge corridor.
AC Transit staff recommended that $35 million of CMAQ funds and $45.6 million of RM2 funds, both slated for the BRT project, be reallocated toward operations. This would provide an additional $80.6 million for operations — preventing layoffs and restoring about half of the service slated to be cut. It is possible for the funds to be reprogrammed from capital to operations, although doing so requires some effort and bureaucratic maneuvering.
CMAQ and RM2: A Smelly Bowl of Alphabet Soup
The CMAQ chunk of money is relatively uncontroversial. There is general agreement that the CMAQ funds should be redirected toward operations, because doing so would give AC Transit access to an additional source of operations money that could lessen the severity of the planned service cuts. The agency was essentially forced to implement these cuts by the State, which left transit operations out in the cold by zeroing out State Transit Assistance (STA) funds from the budget. Redirecting CMAQ funds for operations would require the approval of both MTC and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). There is also the caveat that CMAQ money must be used within a 3-year period, and only for new or expanded service. This means that technically, AC Transit could only use CMAQ money to operate the new routes it has proposed as part of its service adjustment plan; but that would free up more non-CMAQ money to restore service that doesn’t qualify as new or expanded. Thus, if reallocated, the CMAQ money would offset part of the service cuts and reduce hardship to riders who depend on bus service as their lifeline.
Redirecting the RM2 funds is another issue entirely. Earlier in September, Rick Fernandez (AC Transit’s General Manager) contacted MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger, proposing the idea of reprogramming funds. The response from MTC more or less tied together the fate of the CMAQ and RM2 funds: if CMAQ is to be reprogrammed, then so must RM2. This condition was ostensibly issued on the ground that AC Transit should produce an operating plan that is “sustainable” for some length of time, and that redirecting only part of the money would be an insufficient emergency stopgap measure. It was basically this directive that led to the staff recommendation to reprogram both CMAQ and RM2 funds together. Reprogramming RM2 funds would be problematic, however, for a few reasons, beyond just the fact that shifting money around, while technically permitted, nonetheless appears dodgy to voters.
First, there is the “swap” mechanism that would be used to reprogram the money. RM2 money is used for both capital investment and operations, but MTC cannot simply decree that an RM2 capital dollar be switched to an RM2 operating dollar. Rather, AC Transit must undergo a swap with another agency’s project. MTC would facilitate a transfer of AC Transit’s RM2 capital share to another project, and then the agency sponsoring that other project would commit to AC Transit the same amount of operating funds. It was suggested in so many words that the other agency in question here could be BART, and that the swapped capital funds could shore up the dreadful Oakland Airport Connector. (The OAC still has a 20% funding gap, which BART plans to fill using a TIFIA loan from the federal government.) Even if some AC Transit service is restored in the bargain, there would still be something ironically tragic about cannibalizing BRT to build the worst-than-useless airport connector.
Another problem, though, is what shifting RM2 would mean for the BRT project. Reserving this store of money for BRT demonstrates that the Bay Area has made a financial commitment to the project. This strong local match has made the BRT corridor an attractive candidate for federal Small Starts funding, which was planned to supply almost one-third of the $235 million project cost. Rick Fernandez suggested that reprogramming RM2 is not unduly problematic, believing that once AC Transit had that pot of money at its disposal, it could use it for a variety of purposes, including BRT. This is really a red herring, as it’s extremely unlikely that cash-strapped AC Transit would redirect precious operating funds in this fashion. The more likely scenario is that RM2 would simply fund operations, not BRT. To the extent that losing RM2 also means losing out on federal funding, what we have on our hands is an evaporating BRT budget. Work on the environmental document will continue, with an estimated completion date in Spring 2010 — and it’s also possible to reduce the scope of the project, by focusing on the high ridership East 14th Street segment of the route. But withdrawing these critical sources of funding would realistically postpone BRT indefinitely.
Where Things Stand (For Now)
The Board ultimately decided to support the redirecting of CMAQ, but it refused to disturb RM2 for the time being — instead wanting to take a few months to evaluate the issue further and explore other potential sources of funding. In light of how little notice was given to the public about this special meeting, holding off on such a major reprogramming of RM2 funds was the correct decision. Indeed, given the precarious circumstances of this meeting, the Board’s vote here was just about as good as we could hope for at this time, and the directors should be commended for not immediately giving way to MTC’s directive. But the vote also means that this issue remains unresolved. MTC will likely not be pleased to learn that the directors held back on RM2, and we may see another showdown over this issue in the near future to decide the fate of this funding, and the fate of BRT.
But leaving aside alphabet soup for the moment, what’s at stake here? Although San Francisco has as a number of transit corridor projects in the works, the Telegraph/East 14th BRT corridor is the only true transit expansion project in the eastern half of the Bay Area’s urban core. (We omit the Oakland Airport Connector, which, for all intents and purposes, is closer to a toy than true transit.) For an urban area with more than a half million people, which is projected to absorb significant future growth, it will not be sufficient in the long-term for AC Transit to merely grasp onto any straw it can find, in a desperate (and, in this case, unsuccessful) attempt to maintain current service levels. That approach is merely defensive. Indeed, the long-term health and viability of the agency may well depend on its ability to go on the offensive, by delivering more robust service on trunk corridors. That service must be more reliable, faster, and more comfortable than current bus service to entice a significant number of people from their cars. Investing in some form of dedicated transitway will be necessary to eliminate transit delay due to congestion, streamline operating costs, and to ensure livability on the major avenues that are well-suited to absorb higher density.
While many of the public speakers in favor of the funding shift were people from Berkeley who have been vocally opposed to BRT all along (and thus showed a less than good faith interest in preserving transit service), others were transit-dependents who were genuinely worried about how the service cuts would affect their lives. I do not want to discount these concerns. The Board’s support of reprogramming CMAQ while maintaining RM2 for the time being is a good compromise that favors riders, while acknowledging the need to take the time to collect more information. Even if the RM2 money is ultimately diverted to operations as well, at least that decision would theoretically follow a more thorough investigation and public process, rather than being rushed with little public notice.
It is incredibly sad that the State of California’s theft of transit funds has put AC Transit into such a difficult position, pitting the hardship of a disenfranchised ridership against a good project that will attract more people to transit. If we lived in a state and nation that truly recognized the value of good transit — and that put its money where its mouth is on the same — we would not be allocating untold billions of dollars to new freeways, while artificially forcing transit agencies to make the difficult and unfair choice between running current service and setting aside a modest sum of money for future investment.