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  • Writer's pictureZack Deutsch-Gross

Preventing the Transit Death Spiral

It’s time to save transit.

While Bay Area transit agencies are still recovering from the pandemic, COVID relief funds are running out. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) projects a $3 billion shortfall for Bay Area operators by 2028. BART, Muni, and Golden Gate Transit are hit first and worst, reaching fiscal cliffs as soon as January 2025. Failure to secure additional funding would result in significant service cuts and fare increases which would leave riders throughout the Bay Area stranded and be a huge setback for California’s climate, equity, and mobility goals. For example, BART would be forced to suspend 2 lines altogether and run only one train per hour on the weekends. It would also impact housing affordability and production, since so much of California’s forward progress on housing is tied to incentives to build near high quality transit with adequate service levels.

TransForm’s top priority this year is to prevent the death spiral transit agencies could soon face if they have to cut service or increase fares. We’re co-leading a Bay Area delegation to secure transit bridge funding from the state to prevent the fiscal cliff and invest in ridership recovery strategies that bring people back to transit, reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and make systems more accessible, equitable, and affordable for all.

How did we get here?

The federal government used to fund transit operations, but doesn’t anymore. Federal spending on subsidizing transit operations fell from about $1.1 billion in 1980 to just under $600 million in 1996; this all happened alongside inflation and rising transit operating costs. While the state has supported important transit capital funding, like new rail lines, electric buses and maintaining our aging transit infrastructure, it has not significantly funded transit operations. Transit operations are the dollars that support things like frequent and reliable transit, bus operator salaries, and fare reduction programs.

As a result, transit agencies have become more dependent on local revenue sources like sales taxes and fares, but this has not always made up the gap. To fully invest in this essential service, we need support for both.

What do we do now?

In the short term, TransForm is seeking a new multi-year operations funding commitment from the 2023 state budget to assist California’s transit systems as they recover from the pandemic and develop long-term funding plans. We are working closely with transit agencies and environmental, community and equity advocates throughout the state to make the strong case to save transit.

In the medium to long-term, we have the opportunity to strategize how we can restructure how our transit systems are operated and funded in order to regrow ridership and center communities that have been ignored, disinvested in, or actively harmed by past transportation decisions. That’s why while we are seeking funding from the state, we are also moving forward on a regional transportation funding measure as part of the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition.

With your support we can work together to ensure everyone has access to a wide range of mobility options, including fast, safe, and reliable public transit.


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