Editor’s note: This story by Gary Richards appeared Feb. 23 in the San Jose Mercury News.
An AC Transit spokesman called the cuts “catastrophic” and predicted steep fare hikes and deep service cuts.
Bay Area transit agencies are reeling under the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding – and can only hope that federal stimulus money will take some of the sting out of the bleak years ahead.
The state budget approved last week slashed aid for running buses and trains by $536 million, in effect abolishing for as long as five years the State Transit Assistance account, which provides cash to build and run transit operations across California. While $1 billion in stimulus funds could be headed to the region for transit and highways, the state losses far exceed the federal infusion of cash for transit districts.
Adding to the expected misery is the drop in sales and property tax revenue as the economy slides deeper into recession. This revenue is how most transit lines fund the daily running of trains and buses.
Overall, San Francisco Muni will lose $61 million over the next two years. The Valley Transportation Authority figures it will lose $50 million. BART is out $42 million. AC Transit expected to get $26 million this year, but will instead receive a mere $1.7 million. Santa Cruz County’s Metro estimates its loss at about $25 million. Caltrain and Samtrans will see combined cuts going from $9 million to $21 million.
AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson called the cuts “catastrophic” and predicted that steep fare hikes and deep service cuts loom, a refrain echoed by almost every agency. The California Transit Association described the situation as “Armageddon.”
“It’s bad news,” VTA General Manager Michael Burns said. “At a time when ridership is continuing to grow, gas prices are again on the rise. And when people need inexpensive transportation options, transit systems, including VTA, are being forced to cut service.”‘
Some effects could be felt as early as this summer, officials said.
For BART riders, the cuts could mean higher parking fees and old cars not being replaced as soon as the transit system had hoped.
Stimulus funds will come to the region through two funnels. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will allocate nearly $500 million in federal rescue money to the nine Bay Area counties on Wednesday, while Caltrans will parcel out millions of dollars more for road projects throughout the state in upcoming weeks.
The state Department of Transportation will most likely set aside its funds for projects that were approved in 2006 but never fully funded. That could give a boost to widening Highway 101 between Interstate 280 and Capitol Expressway, plus rebuilding the interchange at 101 and Tully Road.
Also among the first in line for cash is a project to extend carpool lanes on Interstate 880 from Highway 237 to Highway 101.
The MTC meeting Wednesday in Oakland could turn contentious, as the current plan calls for allocating $75 million to help build the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, which would serve as the final stopping point for a high-speed rail line and Caltrain, and $70 million to build a BART spur to Oakland International Airport. Those two projects alone would take 43 percent of the $340 million headed to the area in stimulus funds for local transit.
Some want money for those new two projects scrapped or reduced – and redirected to cover the cost of paying for day-to-day transit needs.
But MTC officials counter that building the Transbay Terminal now will save millions of dollars in later costs, and combined with the $8 billion in stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail could accelerate that program. California is a leading candidate to capture much of that money because voters in the fall approved a $10 billion bond measure to begin work on the line, which will someday extend from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.
“Given that California is the only state to pass a bond to build a new high-speed line, we think we might be able to do some double-dipping there,” said MTC executive director Steve Heminger. “We are going to spend the stimulus money fast. I can guarantee that.”
No money will be earmarked for the BART line to San Jose, though the extension could benefit in a roundabout way. Stimulus dollars to other new rail lines across the country could free up other federal aid for rail projects like BART.
While the $1 billion in stimulus money is welcomed, it needs some perspective. The Bay Area got more than four times that amount in the $4.5 billion bond passed three years ago.
And at that time the economic disaster the country is now enduring was on no one’s radar.
“Beggars never turn away a meal,” said Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and a member of the California Transportation Commission. “But it’s not the four-course feast many of us imagined.”