From the moment Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in January that his next budget plan would include a $2 billion cut in funding for building mass transit, there was bleating from many of California’s leading liberal legislators.
The budget reduction, warned Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, “could lead to significant service cuts, which is a downward death spiral for some (transit) agencies.”
Oakland Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner added that “I think everyone in the Legislature would not want to have any funding shift, for example, for a public service like transit.”
But a look at the numbers gives a pretty good idea why Newsom chose transit for about 10% of the cuts needed to make up a predicted $22 billion deficit.
They show Californians are not as enthusiastic about either light or heavy rail commuting as their elected lawmakers.
Figures from the American Public Transit Association demonstrate that neither the extensive Bay Area Rapid Transit system nor Southern California’s Metro Rail have come close to recovering the ridership they lost during the coronavirus pandemic, when two things happened:
One saw many white-collar workers begin staying home to work. The other was that thousands of commuters daily chose to use private cars rather than public transit to avoid possible exposure to the many, ever mutating variants of COVID-19.
By the fall of last year, BART was carrying just 55% of its pre-pandemic passenger load, while Metro Rail was at 71% of prior ridership. Partly, that’s because San Francisco saw a greater shift than Southern California toward remote work. The change also saw that city lose about 6% of its population, many workers moving to less expensive areas once they no longer needed to live close to their job sites.
The specific numbers, available most recently from last July, August and September, saw both systems carrying tens of thousands more persons in those months of 2022 than a year earlier. But still not nearly enough to make either system break even financially.
That’s one reason the Newsom budget proposal seeks to cut much more money for new lines and equipment than for operations.
But any reduction in new rail construction offends folks like Wiener and Skinner for other reasons, even though they rarely mention it.
Wiener, in particular, has been the legislative point person for the recent spate of state laws that encourage far denser housing than California has previously seen.
Proximity to mass transit lines and stations is written into some of those measures, with high-rise construction permitted almost automatically in areas close to “major transit corridors” and light rail stations.
So the more new rail lines are built, the more dense housing will be permitted over the next few years.
The fact that not very much of the development authorized so far has actually taken place has less to do with transit access than with high interest rates and skepticism on the part of lenders. They see high vacancy rates where new construction has risen. Current vacancy rates in commercial and multi-family housing run about 27% in San Francisco and 20% in Los Angeles.
In short, just because legislators authorize something does not mean it will automatically occur, especially when the average cost of creating a new one-bedroom apartment or condominium reportedly is about $830,000.
None of this will dampen the enthusiasm of Wiener, Skinner and other legislators for ever-denser housing.
As a result, and if transit ridership gradually creeps back toward pre-pandemic levels, expect pushback from the lawmakers over the cut in transit construction funding, putatively slashed by Newsom from $7.7 billion in 2022-23 to $5.7 billion in 2023-24.
For the fiscally conservative governor had to find places to cut his budget that would impact the fewest possible Californians.
Since ground has not even been broken yet on rail lines that were to be financed by the funds at issue, let alone have them in operation, this is a cut that affects no one right now.
Which makes it a logical category to reduce, unless there’s a sudden and unexpected upturn in the state’s finances.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].