On the Brink: CA Transit Agencies Face Fiscal Cliffs
Updated: Jan 9
Earlier this month, Victor chose to start one of his precious days off meeting with the governor’s office to tell them about his commute. Victor lives with autism and takes the bus from his home in Northern California to work at Home Depot three days a week. His route used to run every 15 minutes, but due to an operator shortage, it now only runs every 30 minutes. He has to get up earlier, spend more time at the bus stop, and hope the bus arrives on time – or risk being late to work, jeopardizing his job.
TransForm is working with transit riders like Victor, transit operators, and over 40 other environmental and social justice advocates like Move LA and Public Advocates to highlight the urgent need to fund transit service. Join us in calling on state policymakers to invest in the transit that Californians deserve.
In our meetings with legislators, workers, and riders share why frequent, reliable transit is so important. A working mother with a baby on her hip told the governor’s staff why taking transit to the doctor’s office shouldn’t require a half-day of vacation. A Los Angeles-based climate advocate who has been riding transit for 50-plus years talked about the importance of reliability and frequency. She chose to sell her car to reduce her carbon footprint, but it’s not always easy to get around. A transit operator shared the toll it takes to continue serving as an essential worker — a job that she loves — alongside the fear and risk of bringing COVID home to her loved ones.
Another part of this problem is a transit operator shortage felt across the state and need for higher wages. Increased operations funding would open doors for better pay and benefits for the operators that make public transportation possible.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draft 2022-2023 budget includes at least $9 billion for public transit and active transportation infrastructure, projects like the forthcoming High-Speed Rail and new bike lanes. There’s also about $1 billion available for public transportation operations and maintenance projects. We applaud these proposals. However, given the outsized role of transportation in both greenhouse gas emissions and addressing inequity, and the pandemic’s impacts on transit agencies’ ability to maintain service for riders, the state must do more.
The state has long prioritized spending on capital, or stuff, like bus fleets, new stations, and bus shelters. Operations funding includes transit operator salaries and fare reduction programs — also necessary elements of frequent, reliable, and affordable transit. California can deliver dependable transit by investing in both transit capital and operations. Considering the enormous budget surplus this year and the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, now is the time for the state to provide flexible funding that can be used for either capital or operations, giving transit agencies the flexibility they need to support riders and keep service on the street.
When public transit declines, our most vulnerable residents are often the first to feel it. Public transit is a lifeline for low-income people, people with disabilities, many essential workers, and those without cars or licenses, as well as the backbone of our state’s infrastructure. Transit particularly supports low-income Black and Brown residents who are more likely to depend on it.
Agencies have already sounded the alarm that many are heading towards “fiscal cliffs,” massive budget shortfalls that could lead to service cuts, more stranded riders, and laid-off workers. The SFMTA is operating at a deficit that is expected to rise in the coming years in part due to increasing expenditures and decreasing revenue from lost ridership. BART is staying afloat due to federal pandemic relief, and is expected to hit a nine-figure budget deficit when that runs out. Similarly, LA Metro is relying on a temporary influx of federal COVID relief funds, but its budget outlook is unsustainable. A one-time budget surplus allocation will give agencies and the state more time to find alternative, reliable operations funding solutions in the face of changing pandemic conditions.
Transit ridership will only return to pre-pandemic levels if transit service is frequent and reliable. Restoring service, bringing back ridership, and maintaining public confidence in transit systems must be a top priority for our decision-makers. If we care about the climate and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must give people a comfortable alternative to their cars.
Californians deserve reliable, frequent transportation: Click here to write a letter to your representative to tell your story about why better transit service is important to you.