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Public transit woes: voters give, state takes away

By dcuff
Friday, November 14th, 2008 at 1:15 pm in Misc. Transportation.

Last week’s election elated California public transit advocates when voters said yes to most transit-related ballot measures — even a $9.95 billion down payment on the first bullet train in America.

But after the election party, a hangover is plaguing many transit advocates as they fret about threatened service cutbacks triggered by the sagging economy and continuing state diversions of gas tax money away from transit.

The voters give. The state takes. Try making sense of this mixed message in a political climate roiled by hard economic times, less use of the auto, and increased use of public transportation.

Transit officials worry that state budget deficit talks in Sacramento could lead to further diversions of money from transit.

“Just as many people are making the shift away from the car to transit, the state is cutting funds to operate buses and trains,” said Amy Worth, an Orinda city councilwoman on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which acts as the conduit to distribute state and federal transit dollars. “It’s ludicrous.”

As for the post election party, Nov. 4 election was milestone for public transit in California and other states.

Proposition 1A, the high speed rail bond measure, squeaked by. Marin and Sonoma county voters agreed to pay for a light rail system to fight congestion along Highway 101.

An eighth of a cent sales tax increase in Santa Clara County appears to have narrowly failed, but transit officials there are talking about starting the first segment of the project, anyway, with funds from an earlier tax measure.

In the East Bay, AC Transit voters increased a parcel tax to pay operation costs, in contrast to most ballot measures that focused on capital projects.

Voters in Los Angeles County, Seattle and Honolulu approved transit measures.

Despite the tough economy times, voters across the country in 16 states approved 23 measures out of 32 state and local public transit-related ballots, authorizing $75 billion in projects , according the American Public Transportation Association.

So why all the love for public transit these days?

Many people are fed up with traffic jams, and they want to help the environment by reducing smog and global-warming gases from cars and trucks.

Some want to ride trains themselves for a more relaxed commute that allows them to read or snooze on board.

“Some people support public transit because they want the other guy to ride the train,” said George Manross, a Southern California pollster who has done surveys for transit agencies . “They want to help the environment.”

But paying for new or expanded transit systems is one challenge. Paying for fuel and drivers to operate them is another problem. A surge in gas prices in the last year has reduced car use, resulting in less sales tax money to pay for running buses and trains.

In California, the state has diverted funds from public transit in the last two budgets, and public transit advocates worry current deficit-cutting talks in Sacramento could end up even larger diversions to balance the state’s growing budget deficit.

Worth and others on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are asking the public to urge state legislators not to cut transit funds.

But how that message plays out in Sacramento depends a lot on state lawmakers from districts outside Bay Area and Southern California in the areas with much less public transit use.

The state of your bus or train system could be affected by the talks.

 

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3 Responses to “Public transit woes: voters give, state takes away”

  1. fpteditors Says:

    The dirty little secret about transit vs autos. The auto [and sprawl] system is heavily-subsidized. The profits are private, the costs are public (global warming, oil wars, floods, fires, bailouts). Sound familiar? Get involved with your local transit advocacy group. The quickest way to change is to make public transit fare-free. The savings are immense.

  2. david vartanoff Says:

    Maybe the MTC could start by diverting highway waste like fourth bore funding to transit.

  3. dc Says:

    “…a $9.95 million down payment…”

    billion with a b!

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