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  • Writer's pictureAmy Thomson

Transit Needs to Survive AND Thrive - Why State Funding Is Critical at This Moment

Transit agencies in the Bay Area and throughout the state are running out of the money they need to keep buses and trains running. TransForm’s top advocacy campaign this year, Survive and Thrive, is to save transit from what some are calling a “death spiral,” and reimagine a better future. Agencies need a new source of funding to support transit operations, or they simply won’t be able to continue to provide service at a reasonable level, let alone expand needed service. BART, for example, risks increasing wait times between trains to 90 minutes; SFMTA, AC Transit, and Samtrans are estimating service cuts of 14 to 20 percent.

And this isn’t just a Bay Area crisis. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, agencies’ costs were rising faster than their revenues. Now, 72% of transit agencies across California are facing budget shortfalls when one-time federal relief money runs out. These financial shortfalls are known as “fiscal cliffs” and they are projected to begin as soon as 2025. The Bay Area will be hit first and worst: we anticipate needing at least $3 billion in funding between now and 2028.

TransForm is leading a coalition to secure money in the upcoming state budget to be distributed to agencies to avert a short-term fiscal cliff, as well as funding for programming to rebuild ridership through service increases, fare subsidies, and operator recruitment and retention. In the longer term, our coalition will be fighting for ongoing revenue sources, such as a voter-approved regional transportation measure to maintain and build a thriving, comfortable, affordable, world-class transit system that will invite everyone to ride it.

Why transit needs to survive

Transit is essential to social equity

Transit service cuts harm all of us, but they harm low-income, Black, Latine, and indigenous people, and other people of color, as well as disabled people, disproportionately. In the Bay Area, 65 percent of AC Transit riders are low-income and 75 percent are people of color. Similarly, 90 percent of Samtrans riders are low income and 85 percent identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. Black workers relied on transit in the San Francisco-Oakland region to get to work at twice the rate of white workers in 2021, according to TransitCenter data.

Public transit is an economic lifeline for these residents, especially seniors and people with disabilities. Based on 2021 U.S. Census data, almost 60 percent of California residents who commute via public transit have a household income below $35,000. What’s more, over half a million California households own no vehicle and count on public transit for their daily needs, including access to K-12 education and college. Driving alone is the most expensive way to travel and we must provide a reliable, comfortable, affordable alternative. The graph below shows that low income folks spend a higher proportion of their income on housing and transportation, meaning they stand to benefit more from improved access to affordable options.

Transit is essential to combating the climate crisis

Building reliable, inviting, comfortable, affordable transit is our strongest strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help forestall the climate crisis’ worst effets. Doomsday service cuts will decimate ridership and push more people into personal vehicles, which are responsible for one third of California’s climate emissions. At a time when we need to be rebuilding trust in our transit systems, we can’t afford to push riders away.

In California’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the California Air Resources Board calls on policymakers to increase access, ease, and comfort of transit so it can be a viable alternative to driving. Electric vehicles alone will not solve the climate crisis. To truly get people out of their cars and deliver the state’s carbon neutrality goal, California needs to double capacity and service frequencies of the existing local public transit networks. It will take significant investment to develop a system that supports our goals, and we need to do it now.

How transit can thrive

As we reimagine transit in the Bay Area, TransForm has identified four core principles:

A safe and inclusive environment. Transit agencies, advocates, and others have begun reimagining safety on transit in different ways. BART, for example, launched their first sexual harassment prevention campaign Not One More Girl in April 2021. This campaign involves updated sexual harassment tracking, media, and public information to communicate that abuse will not be tolerated on BART. LA Metro conducted How Women Travel research to identify policy initiatives to improve the ridership experience and safety for women riders. TransForm is supporting a bill sponsored by Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine) and Stop AAPI Hate that would require the top ten public transit agencies in the state to collect rider harassment data. Understanding and addressing how riders - particularly trans and cis women, youth and people of color - experience violence and harassment on transit is fundamental to encouraging everyone to have a safe and inclusive riding experience.

Separately, transit systems across the state are seeing an increase in homeless riders turning to transit for shelter. This has ignited a conversation about how to improve outreach and crisis response on transit. TransForm does not support increasing police funding, but instead supports community programming, such as outreach to connect transit riders experiencing homelessness with compassionate crisis intervention and mental health services.

Affordable and integrated fares. State legislators have long considered free and reduced fares for priority populations such as students and disabled people. Integrated fare structures, easy payment options, and targeted fare reductions are proven ways to draw former commuters back and entice people to try transit.

Hiring and supporting our transit operators. In order to restore and increase service, many agencies in the Bay Area and across the state will need more transit operators. These are unionized jobs that keep our economies running and communities connected with safe, affordable mobility. Poor working conditions, low pay, an aging workforce, and limited opportunities for advancement are all factors that have contributed to high vacancy rates and poor retention. There is a serious need for investment in job attractiveness. Operators wear many hats while at work and this is especially true since the pandemic. They are driving the vehicles, overseeing fare collection and sometimes mask-wearing policies, and the first person responsible for handling any altercations or complicated situations involving passengers on the vehicle. Investment is necessary to improve the job quality of transit operators to help attract and retain these essential folks.

An accessible, frequent, and reliable system. Increasing transit frequency and reliability is one of the best ways to increase ridership. Frequent and reliable transit frees residents from cars, fuel costs, parking, and more. Equally important are accessibility features such as clear and visible maps and signage to navigate transit systems, design standards that allow for people walking and rolling, and audio cues to assist blind people.

It’s time to double down on investing in our transit systems so we can lift up our core principles for a useful, comfortable, reliable system. In addition to climate and social equity, transit supports our economy. Every $1 invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns. But we can’t do the work without your help.

Help TransForm build a strong coalition so California transit can survive and thrive for decades to come. Donate today.


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