California’s public transit systems say they are facing a “fiscal cliff” as ridership continues to lag behind pre-pandemic levels and federal emergency aid expires.
If the state doesn’t cough up billions of dollars to underwrite bus and rail systems – they want $1 billion a year for at least five years – their managers say they will have no choice but to reduce service and/or raise fares, mostly affecting low-income Californians.
On Tuesday, transit system leaders, their unions and supportive legislators staged an “emergency press conference” near the Capitol to raise the issue’s profile, as legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom work on a state budget that must be passed by June 15.
“It’s a do or die moment for transit in California,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said.
Transit’s pleas haven’t fared well so far. Newsom’s revised budget this month brushed them off with a vague pledge to work on the problem later.
Transit has some support in Assembly and Senate budget blueprints, but looming over the situation is the same cloud that affects every other budget interest group this year – a massive deficit.
Newsom pegs the gap between income and outgo at $32.5 billion – up $9 billion from his initial budget – while the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, says it’s several billion dollars higher and that deficits will plague the state for several years to come.
The deficit is not the only hurdle. While transit leaders say the money is needed to maintain service while ridership rebuilds, there’s no particular reason to believe that it will return to pre-pandemic levels.
The state’s population is dropping and commuting has declined as many workers continue to do their jobs remotely. Moreover, there are rising complaints that buses and trains have become breeding grounds for criminal activity.
The poster child for the state’s troubled transit systems is Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, which has seen one of the largest declines in ridership, puny post-pandemic recovery and sharp criticism for operational shortcomings and rider safety.
Harriet Richardson, BART’s inspector general, resigned in March, saying that the system’s directors, managers and unions had obstructed her efforts to root out waste and corruption.
Richardson’s position has been created in 2018 as part of an effort to persuade voters to approve a transit ballot measure and Newsom appointed Richardson, the former Palo Alto city auditor.
“The board keeps wanting to support what the unions want, and that is an interference in our work,” Richardson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It undermines our independence and undermines employees’ whistle-blower protection rights, and I just simply can’t agree to it.”
Steve Glazer, a Democratic state senator from Orinda, resigned from a legislative committee studying transit finances, complaining that BART – which serves his East Bay constituents – was refusing to confront its managerial problems.
Daniel Borenstein, a columnist for the Bay Area News Group who has closely monitored BART’s performance for years, says the system doesn’t deserve help.
“Most BART directors won’t even consider trimming the district’s operating budget. It’s childish and fiscally reckless. And it demonstrates exactly why neither state lawmakers nor Bay Area voters should entrust BART with more money,” Borenstein recently opined.
“BART doesn’t deserve a bailout until it brings its spending into alignment with the new reality. There is no sign of the system’s ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels – not in the foreseeable future and most likely not ever.”
It would be fair to say that BART’s sorry state drags down the more persuasive pleas of other systems for state aid – a bad apple, as it were, spoiling the whole barrel.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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