News

Joshua Shaw: Transit systems need more than just bond money

Sacramento’s annual fight over allocation of scarce resources–also known as
“putting together the state budget”–rarely advantages those with little
voice in the political process. Case in point: riders of public transit.

Often thought of as the lowest of our low, many citizens do indeed face huge
hurdles in getting from one place to another; too many of us don’t have
access to a car or can’t afford to pay today’s exorbitant gasoline prices.
Unfortunately, it’s just as often that these folks are not registered to
vote, or don’t participate actively in local or state governance.

Of course, not all who take the bus or hop on light rail cling to the lowest
rungs on society’s upward mobility ladder. California’s transit systems are
filled with of commuters who choose not to further congest our already
crowded highways. Nonetheless, when it comes time to spend state funds, it’s
been a long time since those in power stopped to think about those who need
and rely on mass transit.

In fact, until this year, too many opportunities have been missed to improve
the lives of all Californians by enhancing local and state transit systems.

Not only has state support for transit been relatively low compared to other
states (New York spends nearly three times more than us), but too many
budgets in the past actually diverted transit funds to non-transit purposes
(more than $1.3 billion had been ripped off from local public-transportation
agencies since 2000).

Fortunately, the news is very good out of Sacramento this year. That’s
primarily because the Legislature and governor crafted in Proposition 1B an
infrastructure-bond package providing nearly $20 billion for transportation
investments, of which more than $5 billion will go to local transit systems.
These funds are needed to improve local travel options.

These dollars will make a real difference in the daily lives of millions of
Californians.

Of course, the job is far from over. While local transit systems need the
funds in the bond to purchase new buses and construct new rail lines,
transit systems need more than capital or construction dollars: They also
require “operations and maintenance” dollars. Just as tax revenues are spent
to maintain fire engines and pay police officer salaries, the State needs to
maintain and grow the funding set aside to keep mass transit running. A bond
can’t pay these costs. Our analyses show that an increase of more than $400
million annually is needed in operating assistance to pay increased fuel
costs, put new service on the streets, and meet the huge unmet demand latent
in our urban and growing communities.

We need to ensure that future legislatures do not repeat some of the
mistakes of the past, stripping much needed transit dollars from the state
budget. Why had so many public officials turned their backs on transit
riders in the past, in the face of statistics and data that paint a
compelling picture of California’s reliance on transit.

Millions of Californians depend on transit. Our transit agencies together
provide over 1.4 billion rides per year.

Transit plays a vital role in making sure people get to school. In Stockton,
at least 39 percent of bus riders use the bus to reach middle school, high
school, community college, university, or adult-education classes.

Transit is vital to maintaining mobility for seniors. Transit operators in
the San Francisco Bay Area estimate that from 4 to 12 percent of their
fixed-route customers are 65 or older.

And the demand for these services is growing. In Orange County, the
dial-a-ride services provided about 596,000 trips in 2001. By 2004, that
figure had nearly doubled to more than 1 million trips.

It will take more than just roads to keep Californians mobile in the years
to come. And when the next budget season comes around, we need to ensure
that state leaders continue to understand the vital role public transit
plays in millions of people’s lives.


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