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Los Angeles' Metro Rail, above, and Bay Area Rapid Transit haven't recovered the ridership they lost during the pandemic. Stock image
Los Angeles' Metro Rail, above, and Bay Area Rapid Transit haven't recovered the ridership they lost during the pandemic. Stock image
California FocusOpinion

Elias: Despite bleating, transit cuts merited

There was no doubt more cuts would be needed from the moment Gov. Gavin Newsom submitted his preliminary budget plan for fiscal 2023 last January, basing it on a minimalist $22 billion estimated deficit.

As expected, the deficit turned out to be much more by the time Newsom’s May spending plan revision appeared — it’s now pegged at $31.5 billion.

So more cuts are proposed as budget negotiations between the governor and legislators continue. After-school programs will likely endure a small slicing. 

Public schools themselves will probably suffer a cut between 1% and 2%, somewhere north of $1 billion out of the previous $108 billion. 

Prisons will see a reduction, but not commensurate with lowered inmate population. Even Newsom’s pet plans to fight climate change will take about a $6 billion hit.

But the single cut that appears most merited, from a place where many billions of previous dollars have been sunk, is the $2 billion reduction for mass transit, down to a “mere” $5.7 billion for building new lines.

From the moment this emerged in January, the transit systems’ most fervent advocate in Sacramento, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, pronounced it an unmitigated disaster. The cut, he said, “could lead to significant service cuts, which is a downward death spiral for some (transit) agencies.”

Wiener upped his rhetorical ante after the May revise. “If we don‘t address the transit fiscal cliff, we will see massive and devastating service cuts, harming the millions of Californians who rely on transit to get to work, school or the grocery store.”

The “fiscal cliff” is another term for the fact that federal pandemic relief funds expire soon, meaning transit agencies will need to stand on their own much more unless the state bails them out. Newsom appears to want the light rail and bus systems to vastly increase their self funding.

That won’t happen until and unless the systems become cleaner and safer. “Riding the MTA in Los Angeles or Bay Area Rapid Transit … is putting your life at risk,” wrote Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, in a recent essay.

To many potential riders, that looks correct. Riders see frequent gang presence on light rail trains, sniff strong urine odors in some cars and occasionally, unpredictably, encounter violence on the big systems.

Neither BART nor the MTA has come close to regaining the ridership they had before the pandemic. Shifts of white-collar workers to home offices account for only part of the deficit, which at last reading saw BART carrying barely 60% of its pre-pandemic passenger load.

Without those tens of thousands of paying passengers, the big urban systems — which seem continually to build extensions — can’t possibly survive on their own without massive service cuts like Wiener predicts.

Wiener, of course, doesn’t mention one of the key reasons he does not want cuts in transit service levels no matter how many riders switch back to their individual vehicles:

Over several years of steadfast advocacy, he has made himself the face of ever-denser housing in California, even while an abundance of vacancy signs decorating most new apartment buildings seems to proclaim them unneeded or unwanted.

Bills written or endorsed by Wiener and legislative allies like fellow Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley favor lowering or eliminating parking requirements in new buildings, thus allowing more dwelling units. 

Their theory is that residents of buildings near rail stops and major bus lines will always use public transit and not drive themselves.

But this is not New York. The folks legislators expect to ride transit exclusively will not unless the big systems earn their patronage. All this is beginning to create severe parking shortages in some places.

It is further proof that just because a few legislators convince themselves something will happen does not make it so.

This means Newsom would be well advised to stick to his guns and stay with his planned cut in transit funding, at least until the systems get more policing, more sanitation, and more safety in general, and thus attract more riders.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]. Read more California Focus columns here.

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