Car-obsessed California seeks to follow New York’s lead and save public transit

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Sadaf Zahoor has resisted California’s car culture by never owning one, but she and other residents who rely on public transportation fear his bleak financial outlook will soon leave them standing in empty train stations and bus stops.

Agencies that run public transit systems, especially in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., where Zahoor lives, live on billions of dollars in federal aid that will soon expire.

Ridership dropped 94% during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a gaping budget deficit. Rate box revenues have rebounded a bit, but with more people working from home, some systems haven’t even returned to half their previous levels.

Transit agencies have asked Democrats who control the California government to bail them out, just as Democrats in New York recently did with a $227 billion spending plan. Demand is proving much harder to sell in the nation’s most populous state, where majestic mountain highways and seas of suburban single-family homes have made it far more auto-dependent than most of the world. northeast.

“If there were any major changes, it would definitely affect my ability to get to work,” said Zahoor, 36, who thinks she should team up with friends to buy a group car because she couldn’t. not afford it. her own.

The California Transit Association says transit agencies will have a collective shortfall of about $6 billion over the next five years. The state, which relies heavily on taxes paid by the wealthy, is expected to run a $31.5 billion budget deficit this year amid a struggling stock market and tech industry layoffs.

Instead of bailing out transit agencies, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed cutting $2 billion in funding for their infrastructure to help balance the books.

HD Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said Newsom’s proposed budget cuts to many agencies “were necessary to fill the gap,” but the governor has pledged to return the money if the revenues rebound next year.

Bay Area Rapid Transit warned that if the state doesn’t help, it could force the agency to stop operating after 9 p.m. and on weekends, while limiting regular service to just one train per hour.

Transit activists say cutting services will only exacerbate the problem.

“It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg,” said Stephanie Lotshaw, acting executive director of TransitCenter, an advocacy group for public transportation systems across the United States. “If you divest, people won’t use it. But if you invest in it, more people will use it, because it actually becomes a usable service.”

The pandemic has been particularly damaging for Bay Area Rapid Transit because up to 70% of its revenue came from fares — far more than most other transit systems, said Janice Li, chair of the system’s board of directors. of public transport. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, relies less on public transit than San Francisco, though voters have expressed support in recent years.

At the very least, Li said, California lawmakers should pass an interim measure to keep public transit afloat until the 2026 election, when local voters could decide to pay more.

“We are not asking for the world, nor are we asking for the world indefinitely,” Li said.

The White House has said states have the option of redirecting some of the federal money typically used for road construction and repair to transit operations, but many drivers are calling it a non-starter.

“We have the highest gas tax in the country and our roads are still in very poor condition,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a California group opposed to tax hikes. “If we look at transportation in general, the money is better spent on the systems that people actually use, which in California are roads and highways.”

Transit officials are appealing not only to regular riders, but also to drivers who could face much more congested traffic if other options were gone. According to Bay Area Rapid Transit, nearly twice as many people travel during rush hour under the Bay Bridge by train than by car.

Supporters have taken to creative marketing — even hosting a mock transit funeral last weekend in Oakland.

“We’re doing our best, but we don’t know what’s possible at this point,” said Vinita Goyal, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Legislative leaders have pledged to reject Newsom’s $2 billion cuts and allow agencies to use some of that money for their operations. State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco, said that’s still not enough.

“In every community in California, there are people who depend on the bus, and they’re not the most powerful people. They tend to have lower incomes. They tend to be non-white. They tend to be disproportionately older people or students,” Wiener said. “Why on earth we would for a minute consider allowing these systems to collapse is beyond me.”

San Francisco resident Gabriel Goffman bought his apartment last year because it was on three bus routes. One has already closed due to budget constraints and another is about to be cut.

“I moved here with three buses, and now it’s like, ‘How many are coming back?'” Goffman, 35, said.

Newsom and state lawmakers have until the end of June to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Negotiations on what to do with transit agencies may drag into the fall.

Janno Lieber, chairman and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority – the nation’s largest public transit system – said state leaders saw there was no choice but to save the metro stations, which he called as vital to the city’s survival as “air and water”. ”

“Mass transit is literally existential for New York City,” Lieber said. “We could see that the federal money was going to run out in 24, and we couldn’t afford to go into a new fiscal year (not knowing) if we were going to have to massively cut service, lay off a bunch of people or dramatically increase prices.

California Assemblyman Phil Ting, Democrat of San Francisco and chairman of the powerful Assembly Budget Committee, questions whether his state’s transit agencies have prepared enough for the loss of federal funding . He said new public funds should come with strings attached.

“On the one hand, they are sounding the alarm. There is a fiscal cliff,” Ting said. “But if you look at their business operations, it’s business as usual, which is just not acceptable.”

Proponents of more money for California’s public transit say its cities don’t need to be as service-dependent as a place like New York to make it a worthwhile investment for a state that considers environmental benefits and economics of reducing car traffic.

“It’s cultural. It takes a long time to change,” said California State Senator Ben Allen. “One way to make sure it doesn’t spread is to let the system crash.”


McMurray reported from Chicago.

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