Sacramento Bee: California’s transportation funding package must do more for public transit

January 30, 2017

California faces a transportation crisis, with gridlock, crushing commutes and significant negative impacts on our environment, economy and quality of life.

We will never solve this problem without massive, transformational investments in public transportation that make it easier for people to get around in a safe, healthy, convenient and efficient way.

The Legislature and governor must step up and significantly fund our public transportation. No more lip service. No more empty gestures. No more cutting ribbons on high-profile transit projects while letting our transit systems overall deteriorate. It’s time for California to prioritize public transportation.

Two separate funding bills are pending in the Legislature: Senate Bill 1, authored by Sen. Jim Beall, and Assembly Bill 1, authored by Assemblymember Jim Frazier. Both bills will generate about $6 billion annually. Neither bill dedicates more than 10 percent of its funds for public transit. For context, 20 percent of the federal gas tax is dedicated to public transportation. Moreover, some of the proposed public transit funds are pre-existing while others aren't certain to ever materialize.

We thank Beall and Frazier for their hard work on this important issue. Both have put in incredible effort traveling the state and trying to find common ground. We are very appreciative.

However, we also believe that these bills need to do more for public transit. We are two of a growing cadre of legislators who will not short-change public transit at this pivotal time.

Our state’s failure to invest in public transportation has led to major problems. Residents face perpetual gridlock. Our highways, bridges and surface streets are becoming borderline non-functional, particularly during commute hours. The public transportation systems we have serve too few communities and have insufficient resources to maintain a state of good repair and expand service.

Bay Area transit systems are over-capacity and deteriorating, with nearly $20 billion in unfunded state-of-good-repair needs in coming decades. Los Angeles, while doing visionary transit expansion work and passing major funding measures, is playing a massive game of catch-up after decades of focus on private auto transportation. Too many parts of the state, like the Central Valley and Inland Empire, are dramatically underserved by even the most basic transit.

All of this was avoidable. Since 1980, California has grown by 16 million people (nearly doubling in size), the Bay Area has grown by 2 million, Los Angeles County has grown by 2.5 million, San Diego County has grown by 1.5 million people, Fresno has grown by 300,000 (a 60 percent increase), and Sacramento has grown by 200,000. Yet, our transit investments have not kept up, and we are paying the price.

It’s only going to get worse if we don’t change course. In the coming decades, California is projected to grow by 10 million to 15 million people. If we don’t dramatically expand public transportation, our economy, environment and quality of life will be significantly undermined.

Local communities are doing their part. Los Angeles just passed a major local funding measure, and almost all Bay Area counties have passed transportation sales taxes and other measures, as have counties throughout the state. Yet, local governments can only do so much. With a broken Congress that hasn’t increased the federal gas tax by the rate of inflation since 1993 – meaning the federal gas tax has declined in value by half, in real terms – California must step up.

The good news is that we have more senators and Assembly members who are passionate about transit and who see the big picture. We are optimistic that enough members of both houses of the Legislature will demand more public transportation funding, meaning that this package will not be viable without prioritizing transit. In the coming weeks, we will work to move this conversation in a positive direction for our state’s transportation future.

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