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good news is no news

By enelson
Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 at 4:29 pm in fuel, Funding, Transit vs. driving.

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It’s not unusual to get press releases from the governor’s office trumpeting the accomplishments of government, but one I received yesterday was especially worrisome.

It said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was announcing $136 million for transit projects statewide, the biggest of which was $36 million for BART’s Station Modernization Program.

Already working on another story, I didn’t relish the idea of picking up another to turn around in one day. But I called around and ascertained that this “story” was just what I initially thought it was: Not news.

News, of course, is subject to interpretation. News consumers are often distressed by the way journalists can casually dismiss murders in one’s own city with a paragraph or two. But they also demand what is “new.” In some cities, homicides are so commonplace readers glaze over when they see stories about street violence.

But we’re not talking about murder, unless you’re a public transit fan.

The $136 million the governor announced was from Proposition 1B, approved by voters in 2006 with much encouragement from Schwarzenegger and Oakland’s Sen. Don Perata, the State Senate leader who played a big part in getting the $20 billion transportation bond measure on the ballot.

It makes sense for the governor to tout Prop 1B right now. He’s being slammed by a growing community of transit supporters for siphoning as much as $1.3 billion from what seems to be the only healthy source of funding in Sacramento these days: Fuel taxes.

It gets tiresome explaining all of this repeatedly, but it’s good to know that much of that money comes from a formula worked out with Gov. Ronald Reagan back in the days of free love and air-cooled Volkswagens.

The basic idea, as its been explained to me, was that gas tax surpluses wouldn’t be spent willy-nilly by the state government. They’d go to help public transportation at a time when, presumably, people would be looking to alternatives to spiking gasoline prices.
Well, as the Gipper would say, that time has arrived.

So the governor was in San Diego talking about how public transit was going to get all this money, but really, compared to the money it could have gotten, it wasn’t much. Had the press conference been held in the Bay Area, which is getting the lion’s share of the money, I suspect there might have been a few demonstrators out protesting the governor’s budgeting practices.

To his credit, Schwarzenegger did mention that the state transit operating subsidy would be “flat,” reflecting a level of gas tax siphoning similar to last year’s.

He also used the opportunity to call for reform of the state’s budget process, which could, in theory, eliminate the need to take transit money in the future.

But for now, I’m heading to an AC Transit meeting where the board of directors are contemplating a new parcel tax to raise an additional $14 million a year. That won’t quite fill the $19 million gap left by the state transit siphoning, but it clearly illustrates one way out of this mess.

The citizens of the Bay Area need to pony up the extra cash needed to provide services the state can no longer afford to pay.

The beauty of that is that being such a disproportionate engine of income in California, the Bay Area has the cash to do that.

And being the state’s most progressive-minded area, the Bay Area also has the will to do that, as demonstrated by AC Transit’s recent poll on the parcel tax idea.

What’s unfortunate about this solution is that the rest of the state, already more dependent on gasoline to get around, has less money and will to solve its problems in this manner.

There will always be a third of the legislature or voters ready to veto any attempt at raising taxes to pay the bills. I expect this will lead to more pigeon-hole taxes to pay for bus service here, school books there and maybe salaries for more police somewhere else.

And what Californians don’t recognize as vital services will need to be paid for in other ways, such as fee-for-service or tolls.

We already pay a 9-1-1 surcharge on phone bills, so why not public school registration fees?

I just learned from a colleague that Perata and Senate Democrats have proposed $11.5 billion in new taxes, something that neither the state Assembly nor the governor has proposed, and something that has absolutely no chance of passage

Using history as a guide, one could conclude that we’re headed for more local property taxes, higher fares and less transit service in addition to $5 a gallon gas.

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2 Responses to “good news is no news”

  1. Jason Says:

    “Gas tax siphoning” – great metaphor.

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Thanks. I take my inspriration from the late 1970s fuel crisis, when both tax revolts and fuel siphoning were popular.

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