California’s transit troubles

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When democratic lawmakers presented their proposal for balancing the state budget, there was one little thing they didn’t mention: It would have all but eliminated funding for public transportation -- not just next year but in perpetuity.

The proposal was vetoed last week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. Moreover, the governor’s plan is even worse for public transit; the Democrats want to keep distributing about $150 million the state receives from a tax on diesel fuel to transit agencies, while the governor aims to get the state completely out of the business of funding transit. The rush to jettison passenger rail and buses as the state tries to cope with a severe budget crisis counters not only the will of the voters, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they greatly value public transit, but the state’s ongoing crusade to reduce its traffic and pollution woes.

Democrats are usually reliable transit supporters, so this comes as a surprise. Yet majority leaders seem to feel they have no choice. It takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes, and Republicans refuse to consider tax hikes to fill the state’s $41-billion budget hole. So Democrats found a clever way around that rule: eliminate the gas taxes, replace them with a user fee that’s 13 cents a gallon higher than the current taxes, then raise sales and income taxes by an amount equivalent to the old gas taxes. They can claim that they can raise taxes with less than a two-thirds vote as long as they reduce other taxes by an equal amount.


The problem with this shell game is that user fees have strings attached: They can only be spent on things that directly benefit those who pay the fee. So a gasoline fee could only be spent on roads, highways and other systems used by drivers -- and not on public transit. Thus, even though drivers would be sending more money to Sacramento when they fill their tanks than they do now, the transit agencies that help keep cars off the roads and reduce the air pollution caused by vehicles would get nothing. Brilliant.

Though Schwarzenegger vetoed the Democrats’ plan, it was for reasons that had nothing to do with the gas fee scheme, so there’s good reason to think a permanent end to public transit funding will be part of future budget proposals. It shouldn’t be. California voters have repeatedly shown they want some of their gas tax money to fund transit, and they’re even willing to tax themselves more to improve bus and rail systems. Transit agencies, like every other public service, can expect to take a big hit in the next budget, but that doesn’t mean their permanent funding stream should be cut off.