A little more than two years ago, in a high-profile public ceremony—one that included a via-satellite appearance by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
Then, during the next couple of years, the governor slowly nibbled away at the funding that the state's local public-transit authorities rely on to keep their buses, trolleys and trains running.
While getting more folks out of their cars and into public transportation isn't the only solution to curbing greenhouse gases, it's a biggie. Ridership on San Diego's buses and trolleys is at an all-time high, but San Diego County's Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) estimates that state budget cuts will result in a $14 million to $17 million shortfall next year. State cuts to public transit are expected to continue for the next five years, which doesn't bode well for MTS. In mid-March, the agency declared a fiscal state of emergency; in all, over the last three years, MTS' budget has been reduced from $243 million to $215 million, largely the result of state actions.
To make up for some of that loss, MTS plans to cut $4.7-million worth of services—some lines will run less frequently on nights and weekends (or not at all). MTS also expects to generate $2.2 million from fare increases. An adult monthly pass, for instance, will go from $68 to $72, putting San Diego second behind Sacramento when it comes to the highest-priced basic monthly pass in the state. It's still arguably cheaper than the cost of owning a car, but with cuts to services and the elimination of some bus routes (like the one closest to this reporter's house), fewer people will opt to take public transit unless they absolutely have to.
“If the story is constantly, Another bus route was eliminated, fares increased once again, people who need to start thinking about transit won't think about transit because the notion is it's too expensive, it's too time-consuming, it's not a pleasant experience,” said San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who also sits on the MTS board of directors and who opposed the service cuts and fare increases. “And how are we ever going to have a conversation about maybe adding wi-fi to our trolleys and buses if we can't even keep the things running?”
On Friday, April 10, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a public agency that deals largely with regional transportation planning, will hold a workshop that will look at how local transit operations (MTS and the North County Transit District) are funded and what options are available to make up for state cuts. The workshop is in response to comments made by members of the public at a March 20 meeting of SANDAG's Transportation Committee.
Theresa Quiroz, a self-described “transit nerd,” was among a handful of people who pressed committee members about why more revenue from TransNet—the voter-approved half-cent local sales tax—couldn't be shifted away from highway and road projects to cover losses at MTS. Right now, roughly 16 percent of the $235 million to $245 million generated annually by the TransNet tax goes to fund public-transit operations.
In an e-mail to CityBeat, Quiroz cited a state law that outlines SANDAG's responsibility for public-transit operations.
“The SANDAG transportation committee ‘shall provide strong focus and commitment to meeting the public transit needs of the San Diego region.' In my opinion,” Quiroz wrote, “that state law has been completely and totally disregarded.”
But there's opposition from some SANDAG board members—who, by a two-thirds vote can make changes to TransNet—to reallocating the sales-tax revenue. Critics of the idea say that when voters approved a 40-year extension to the sales tax back in 2004, they were promised a long list of highway and road projects—projects that have already been budgeted for under TransNet's revenue projections, said SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos; and, some board members have argued, backfilling state budget cuts sends the wrong message.
“If we keep going locally to find solutions, the state will continue to divert the money away from public transportation,” said MTS spokesperson Rob Schupp.
Proponents of shifting TransNet money—or finding some other local solution—to prevent more service cuts and fare increases argue that it's a bad idea to make an example of public transportation.
“We could shave off a small amount of [TransNet] money to stabilize an agency providing critical public services,”
Stephen Russell, a member of the City Heights Community Development Corporation, pointed out at the March 20 committee meeting. “If you don't get your child-support payments, you don't starve the child until the father starts paying.”
Gloria pointed out that when state funding for highway and roads projects dried up, SANDAG used TransNet money to keep those projects moving ahead until federal stimulus funds became available.
“If that same sort of dexterity can be done for transit, we should explore that,” he said.
Elyse Lowe, executive director for Move San Diego, a pro-public-transit nonprofit, suggested that there are other funds, besides TransNet, that SANDAG can tap into
“SANDAG is a billion-dollar agency,” Lowe said. “Now is the time that they should figure out how much money they have and how much of it they want to allocate to transit, especially with ridership at an all-time high and knowing the future demands that'll be placed on transit.”
Move San Diego, Lowe said, has proposed a complete overhaul of the region's public-transit system—something that may have to happen given the new state laws that require local planners to come up with ways to cut carbon emissions.
“I feel like SANDAG's taking a step in the right direction even by having this workshop,” Lowe commented. “There are policy questions that underlie it—how much priority should we give to transit funding versus freeway funding? I mean, people actually said the words: Maybe we need to fund fewer freeway projects and more transit.”