Public Transportation Feels the Pinch

With unemployment at ten percent nationwide and the emptying-out of foreclosed-upon suburban properties, public transit in urban centers has never been more vital. Yet in a perfect storm of choice and consequence, providers like AC Transit are now facing funding deficits that mandate higher fares, route closures, and may result in fewer buses plying East Bay streets.

Fewer buses mean more car rides, greater greenhouse gas emissions, and worsened air quality. For those who stick with public transit, through necessity or conviction, it will likely mean a slower, less convenient ride. Yet so far in this recessionary era, much government transit investment has emphasized personal—not public—transportation. There were the automaker bailouts and the $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program, and there is typically an eighty percent highway/twenty percent public transit split in the federal transportation bills that Congress authorizes every six years. Caught in a Catch-22, public transportation operators are often forced to offer fewer alternatives and worse service to their ridership.

AC Transit is a microcosm of the nation’s under-funded mass transit problem: in 1955, back in the heyday of muscle cars and chrome, the publicly owned Alameda-Contra Costa Transit bus district was born. By 1960 AC Transit offered 250 innovative “transit liners” and had created an intercity express bus network. Yet public funding has shorted transit for so long that today many agencies are now on the ropes—AC Transit currently faces a $57 million deficit, fares have gone up, and retiring employees are not being replaced.

Throughout the fall, the agency grappled with the possibility of a fifteen percent service cut that, starting in January 2010, would close some lines and merge or reroute others. The most hotly contested proposed cut is to line 67, which carries riders from the downtown Berkeley BART station to Tilden Park. Other potential cuts include line 13 between Lakeshore and Crocker Highlands, the 15 line between Oakland’s 12th Street BART station and downtown Berkeley, and the 51, the agency’s busiest line, between the Bridgestone Shopping Center in Alameda and Berkeley’s Amtrak station.

Loath to reduce its service, the agency has searched for alternatives. In September it asked the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) if it might divert $80 million—previously slated for a bus rapid transit system between downtown Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro—to maintaining regular operations. In October, the agency requested that the MTC postpone the implementation of service cuts. As of press time, no decision had been reached regarding either request.

But even riders unaffected by specific line closures face higher fares. Fare prices went up this July, from $1.75 to $2 dollars a ride. Transbay fares increased by 50 cents. Since 25-cent transfers are only good once, riders who transfer a couple times will pay over $4 per one-way trip.

To transit watchers like Carli Paine, transportation program director of TransForm—a policy organization that advocates for public transit and more walkable communities—the possibility of service cutbacks seems inevitable. “It was a situation that was really waiting to happen,” she says, “because we don’t have long-term sustainable, stable funding for public transit operations.”

Indeed, public transit agencies are at the mercy of a complicated and often changing funding system. “The starting point,” says Nathan Landau, transportation planner for AC Transit, “is that no transit system in North America covers its operating costs through fares.” AC Transit receives its funding from multiple sources: about 18 percent from the fare box; 38 percent from county, state, and federal sales tax revenue including (since 1971) California’s spillover gas tax revenues; 25 percent via local property taxes including bridge-toll money; 17 percent state and federal grants including Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money; and about 1 percent from those ubiquitous ads on the buses.

During a poor economy like today’s, the agency suffers steep declines in its share of county sales tax revenue, statewide sales taxes, California general fund dollars, and property taxes. But that doesn’t stop expenses from adding up. “Just like everybody else, we have to pay our lights and gas,” says AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson. “We have to pay salaries. We have to do all the things everybody else does, so for us to operate in this climate means we’ll be struggling just like everybody else. We’ve had layoffs. We’ve had fare increases. And now we’re talking about service cuts.”

When public transit agencies do receive government funds, money is often earmarked for capital expenses such as tracks, stations, and vehicles. The funding is often not transferable to day-to-day operations. “Most transit funding out there in the world is capital funding,” Paine says. “It puts transit operators in a really hard position, because you can buy a new bus, but you can’t pay for somebody to run it or to drive it. Or you can’t pay for the fuel to run it. It’s a little backwards! There’s this huge paucity of money for actually operating our existing systems.”

Worse, over the past decade the state has actively rerouted money from public transit. Since 2000, the state has diverted $100 million from AC Transit’s portion of the gas tax spillover fund to California’s general fund, says Johnson, who estimates that $60 million was diverted in the past three years. In 2008 alone, at the height of the economic crisis, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger diverted more than $26 million in state funds from AC Transit to the general fund.

In 2007, the California Transit Association sued the state, claiming that it had illegally diverted state transit funds to the general fund, violating voter-supported measures that had slated those funds for transit, including 1990’s Proposition 116, which mandated that spillover monies must be used to fund transit. This September, the California Supreme Court upheld an earlier appellate court decision that ruled in favor of the transit association. The court could force the state to return money it diverted to AC Transit.

It’s unclear how much money might be returned to agencies like AC Transit, or what impact this will have on the agency’s immediate woes. “We’re still waiting to find out what the court’s decision means for transit agencies,” says Paine. “I know that there are lawyers trying to figure this out as we speak.” While excited that the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s decision, which she says sends a clear message to the state about respecting the will of voters, Paine doesn’t expect that those funds will be redirected to transit in the coming year.

Not knowing when and whether the money will be returned makes planning difficult, AC Transit’s Johnson says. “The decision has been made, but we haven’t gotten any money yet,” he says. Getting back the approximately $60 million that was diverted over the last three years, “at a $20-million clip over a three-year period would be a tremendous boon for us,” he says. “It could really stave off some of these service reductions that are now in the works.” If that happened, through creative planning, Johnson predicts that AC Transit may be able to rescue the nearly 1,000 hours of  bus service per day that it’s slated to cut.

The possibility of service reductions couldn’t come at a worse time for riders. “In an economic crisis when people are struggling with affordability in their own households, being able to rely on public transportation as a low-cost alternative to owning a vehicle is a really great way to save money,” Paine says. “It’s exactly the wrong time to un-fund public transit.” AC Transit doesn’t relish the idea of cutting back services, either. “It’s one thing if you have a recession and you come out of it, you recover. But a lot of us are worried that the level of service will be permanently lowered,” says Landau.

AC Transit held a series of public workshops throughout the East Bay asking for community input on its proposed service cuts. “We’ve always had a very open process,” Johnson says. “We’ve realized that this time there were a lot of people that were going to be impacted, at a time, quite frankly, when they could least afford to be impacted.”

All of this budget cutting may also exact an environmental cost. Public transit is a sure way to reduce the carbon output of moving people between home and work, and keeping cars off the road improves air quality—according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the average American household produces 12.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year by driving. Even if many riders take the bus for financial reasons or because they don’t have an alternative, and not out of pure concern for their carbon footprint, says Johnson, “They’re having an impact on our environment. I really think bus riders need to be hailed for that because they are contributing in a major way to trying to stop this great depletion of our ozone.”

For some, cutbacks in public transit funding suggest a conflict about how the state hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “There seems to be a big disconnect, at least at the state level, where they’re doing a lot of the climate action work,” says Landau. “They want to create a greener climate, deal with greenhouse gases. I think they’re sincere. But at the same time they’re cutting transit agencies to smithereens. That’s been a huge frustration for all of us.”

In the meantime, AC Transit has launched several initiatives to help the state meet its greenhouse gas emission targets. Since 2000, the agency has been demonstrating that its hydrogen fuel cell buses are cleaner and twice as efficient as fossil fuel-burning vehicles, emitting only water vapor from their tailpipes.

And, as part of the Economic Recovery Act, in late September AC Transit was awarded a competitive grant of $6.4 million to install solar panels in its primary bus maintenance yard to generate green hydrogen for its zeroemission buses. The operation is sustainable and produces zero pollution. Johnson says the grant will reduce the agency’s power bills. “We put in a much smaller solar system at another one of our facilities and are estimated to save about $5 million over the course of the next fifteen years,” he says. “Every dime we save on one end, we can put back into service on the other.”

Some transit advocates feel that the way that governments have chosen to spend transportation money is an indicator of their economic and environmental priorities. “Whenever you spend money as a public agency you’re not just making a spending decision, you’re making a policy decision and a value decision,” says Paine. “There’s a growing network across the country of folks who feel like we need to have reform in how our transportation dollars are spent. Our highway networks are built out. We need to maintain those, but we really need to invest in the networks of other modes—biking and walking, and especially public transportation, local and interregional.”

TransForm, along with a broad coalition of other agencies, is working towards a more reliable source of funding, seeking reform in this year’s Federal Transportation Authorization, the national transportation bill that provides money to highway and bridge maintenance and public transit. The proposed bill assigns a smaller percentage of money to highways and more to public transit (about 23 percent as opposed to the historical figure of slightly under twenty percent). The bill has been delayed as Congress fights about the need for an overall plan rather than a series of piecemeal projects, and over how to fund it.

Some believe that investing in public transit will not only result in environmental benefits such as improved local air quality, but also will also boost the economy, by providing jobs and by helping people get to work. To an unemployed person without a reliable form of transportation, the world of possible workplaces can become very small, and of course the already employed need inexpensive, reliable ways to commute. Employers also recognize the importance of a robust public transportation system. Being near a transit stop helps East Bay employers—who cite proximity in their job listings—attract and retain employees. Says Erin Steva, the transportation associate for the public interest research group CALPIRG, “Studies show transit investments create nearly twenty percent more jobs than new highways, for the same amount of spending.” According to the California Transit Association, about 31,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion turned towards new public transit projects.

It’s a novel idea, but boosting—rather than shrinking—the public transit budget during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis might help the economy recover while contributing to environmental responsibility. As Landau puts it: “I think transit jobs are green jobs.”

Comments are closed.