To get more riders on public transit, you need more service. But to fund additional service, you need more riders.
That’s the conundrum transit agencies have long encountered. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state’s workforce and the end of federal funds put some agencies in an even more difficult financial position — and the governor’s proposal to cut or delay $4 billion in transportation and transit funding doesn’t help.
So how does California invest in public transit for the future to support commuters and low-income riders, attract new users and reduce its carbon footprint?
Monday, Assemblymembers and state senators on the chambers’ transportation committees convened jointly to discuss those issues. One big takeaway, albeit not a new one: The farebox recovery funding model may not be the most viable.
For example, while the Metro system in Los Angeles has recovered about 70% of its ridership, the agency expects a $400 million deficit in 2025, and $1 billion in 2026.
In addition to the pandemic’s toll, transit officials cited other impacts on their bottom lines, including rising fuel costs and funds needed to address homelessness.
- Michael Turner, executive officer for government relations at Metro: “These problems are not unique to Metro. They’re impacting all transit agencies.”
Agencies’ ability to get their full share of state funding also relies on meeting farebox goals. But Michael Pimentel, executive director of the California Transit Association, noted that factors such as more people working remotely and the popularity of ride-hailing apps are ones that transit agencies can’t address by themselves.
Some ways that state funding could help: improved reliability, more seamless contactless payment options, more dedicated bus lanes to improve timeliness and studying consolidation, or at least better integration between systems.
But a statewide approach often leaves much to be desired for those in less urban areas, noted Assemblymember Corey Jackson, a Democrat from Riverside County.
- Jackson: “We keep saying we need to plan on a statewide level. I think we’ll be missing too many people if we do that. How do we plan based on the unique geographic areas of California?”
What’s next? In addition to budget negotiations, Assembly member Laura Friedman, a Burbank Democrat and chairperson of the Transportation Committee, has introduced Assembly Bill 761, which would create a Transit Transformation Task Force to work further on the issue.
BART, the Bay Area’s loved and hated mass transit system, is a case study of the challenges.
Bay Area Rapid Transit is staring at a deep financial crisis — years of $300 million deficits as monthly ridership hovers at 40% of pre-pandemic numbers, the San Francisco Standard reports. Options are limited, barring a windfall of state or federal cash, or a funding ballot measure. The BART board is mulling possible fare increases as soon as January 2024, on top of 3.4% hikes last year, according to the Chronicle.
And in a provocative piece published Monday, the Standard pointed out that homeless individuals are using BART trains as temporary shelter, and the agency is spending $30 million a year on social service interventions. But at the same time, it’s trying to lure back commuters. In a recent rider survey, BART got the worst marks on addressing homelessness — a crisis even more top of mind than public transit.
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