Through the good offices of conscientious colleagues, I received four copies of a news release reminding people that the fight over public transit, er, “transportation,” funding is still raging in Sacramento:
OAKLAND, CA, July 5, 2007: A group of 43 Alameda and Contra Costa county elected officials today sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urging him to restore $1.3 billion in transit funds in this year’s state budget. The letter includes strong objections to proposed public transit funding cuts that would adversely impact East Bay residents, regional air quality, and the local economy.
That’s all very touching, but according to the governor’s Finance Department, a bunch of crap.
From their perspective, there’s no budget cut.
I mean, I can see arguing semantics over a few lousy million bucks. But $1.3 billion? How could 43 of the East Bay’s finest officials have gotten it so wrong?
Two reasons. One, according to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s money men, is that the shift in funding was only to other types of transportation programs. The account that the guv is accused of raiding is not for “transit,” they argue, it’s for “transportation.” That means its perfectly OK to use it for school busing and transporting clients of state services for the disabled.
There’s also paying off old debts, but those were for transportation-related expenditures, so even many in the legislature seem resigned to that use.
The second reason is that even if one corners them into conceding that the money from the so-called spillover fund, which comes from gasoline sales taxes that outpace sales taxes on other goods, (take a breath here) transit agencies would only be losing about 2 percent of their operating subsidy.
On the first point, our transit advocates tell the governor:
We are very concerned about the proposal to redirect all $827 million in spillover funds, and to permanently terminate Spillover funding for the State Public Transportation Account (PTA). Spillover funds are only triggered when gasoline prices grow faster than the rate of the economy, which is precisely when they are most needed for transit services and capital projects. The PTA is the sole source of ongoing state transit funding and represents the only way the state addresses critical transit operating needs. Gas prices have continued to rise and are projected to persist, therefore “spillover” is likely to continue to be a critical transit revenue source, and must be preserved.
They don’t say, however, that funding home-to-school transportation is bad, or that it would normally come from the general fund under education funding. They also don’t throw stones at the other worthy program the governor’s budgeteers designated to receive spillover money. That might make them look greedy and unconcerned with the plight of school kids and the disabled. A cynical person might think that was the original budget’s intended political booby trap.
On the second point, they argue that those funds are, indeed, meaningful to public transit in the Bay Area:
On an annual basis, public transit vehicles carry millions of Californians, providing about 1.4 billion passenger trips annually, contributing to congestion relief in the urban core, and adding mobility options and vital access for our citizens in suburban and rural areas. The persistent high price of gasoline Californians are paying means that vehicle travel is more expensive for local residents, creating more demand for transit services, and reducing families’ ability to afford other goods and services. We believe it is economically foolhardy to reduce proposed transit options at a time when they are most needed.
Restoring transit funding is also a vital element in cutting greenhouse gases and meeting the emissions targets in AB 32. Vehicle traffic accounts for 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and with a growing population it will not be possible to reduce those emissions without reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled — impossible without a vastly improved transit system. In addition, public transit is necessary to reduce air pollution levels, which is a serious issue throughout most of the state.
Again, they don’t address the 2 percent argument, choosing instead a visceral appeal for public transit because it’s so good for society, the environment and free-flowing freeways.
The bottom line that the governor and legislative negotiators must wrestle with is how to pay for all their favorite programs — transit included — without going too deeply into debt.
With a $.8 billion chunk of spillover money designated for public transportation, it’s probable their agreement will find a way to appease the transit backers and still siphon a few hundred million for other worthy projects.
Photo from http://weblog.pell.portland.or.us.