This blog was co-authored by NRDC Senior Transportation Advocate Zak Accuardi.
Updated on June 14th, 2023 to reflect the latest budget proposal in the legislature.
California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, is at risk of steering public transit off a fiscal cliff. It’s no metaphor: the state is on course to leave hardworking people at the curb, choking on hot, polluted air—waiting for a bus that may never come.
Governor Newsom and legislative leadership have noted the impending crisis, but the latest proposal moving through the legislature is insufficient to save transit. While it restores the Governor's proposed $2 billion cut to the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) and adds $1.1 billion for transit zero-emissions bus funding, both of which can be flexed for transit operations, the legislature’s proposal does not fully address the crisis and would leave billions of federal matching dollars on the table. Without additional operations funding, transit agencies will be forced to choose between sustaining vital service and making the infrastructure investments necessary to rebuild ridership and clean California’s air.
Instead of impossible trade-offs that will hurt riders and workers, the Governor and Legislature should seize an opportunity to start doing for the state’s transit network what we have spent 70 years doing for the state’s highways—make the investments necessary to create a system whose benefits are accessible to all Californians. And while highways have divided, displaced, and driven pollution into disproportionately Black and brown communities, better transit service connects people to their communities more affordably while reducing pollution and creating stable jobs.
Our bus and train service will not survive without state leaders taking this stand. Over 70 percent of transit agencies across the state will experience financial shortfalls as they run out of one-time pandemic relief funds, designed to preserve critical backbone transit service for frontline workers during the pandemic. Without additional support, many agencies will be forced to cut bus and train service, some as much as 60 percent.
For transit riders, it’s easy to imagine how devastating cuts like this would be—instead of a bus arriving every 10 minutes, it might now come every 30. Instead of a bus every hour, it may come a few times daily. As buses and trains become less reliable, people use them less and less, resulting in more car traffic, higher household travel costs, and further reducing fare revenue that will spur further transit cuts, sending our transit systems into a downward spiral.
Projected cuts to transit service would result in more than 700 million fewer transit trips in the Bay Area alone in the next five years; and LA Metro faces an estimated $1 billion funding shortfall in the next two years. If even half of these trips shift into gas-powered cars and trucks or half those dollars get taken away from climate-friendly transportation projects, we’ll blow our pollution numbers into the atmosphere like a plume of wildfire smoke. And cars are simply not an option for many: service cuts would most heavily burden everyday transit riders, who are disproportionately from low-income households, people who do not or cannot drive due to age or disability, and people of color.
In short, without strong leadership, California will effectively kill public transit, hurting our most vulnerable residents and the health of the planet.
Funding public transit is an essential climate strategy. We need to transition to zero-emissions vehicle fleets, but this cannot happen fast enough to meet our climate goals. According to the California Air Resources Board, we need to double transit service by 2030 to meet our climate goals, not dramatically reduce it. Without state funding support, transit agencies will also cut staffing levels, scale back their zero-emissions vehicle plans, and increase transit fares to attempt to make ends meet.
In a tight budget year, state leaders are forced to make hard choices. Fortunately, there is one easy option available: utilizing historically abundant, flexible federal highway funding to protect our vital transit service. Rather than expanding freeways—which fail to deliver on their traffic-reducing promise, too often displace communities, and add to the state’s road maintenance burden—California should allocate highway funds to support transit, reaffirming its commitment to addressing the climate crisis without jeopardizing transit workers’ jobs.
We need to reinvest in a frequent, affordable, and reliable transit system that benefits all Californians. Strong investment in public transit will preserve and expand jobs for bus operators, reduce cars on our highways, and clean the air we breathe.
We urge the Legislature and Governor to come together around specific budget solutions that will avert this fiscal cliff and double down on public transit’s critical importance to all Californians. It’s time for our state leaders to get California back on the bus.