An eastbound Bay Area Rapid Transit train near Rockridge station in Oakland on June 7, 2023. Photo by Godofredo A. Vásquez, AP Photo

I’m CalMatters Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal subbing for Lynn.

Remember when California’s transit agencies were barreling towards a “fiscal cliff’? 

In June, the Legislature and governor agreed to a $5 billion lifeline in the budget as transit agencies’ ridership slowly recovered from the COVID shutdowns. You might also recall that the deal took some convincing due to the state’s overall budget deficit, and reports of mismanagement at Bay Area Rapid Transit.

So where does ridership and financial planning stand now?

BART, which relies heavily on passenger fares for revenue, has seen a slow but steady increase — driven mostly by weekday trips to San Francisco, the San Francisco Standard reports. 

And in September, LA Metro’s monthly ridership, for bus and rail, reached 80% of its pre-pandemic levels.

But one of the top arguments in the push for more state investment was that relying on passenger fares isn’t sustainable. To that end, regional transportation planning agencies are allotted anywhere from about $1 million to more than $1.3 billion in state grants over the next two to four years. 

By Dec. 31, regional planning groups have to submit an application detailing how they plan to use the money to improve ridership and how they will divvy up funds between the transit operators they oversee. Some money can be used for construction projects.  

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s nine-county planning group, will vote on the allocations later this month. But staff has recommended that 45% of the commission’s $1.17 billion be given to BART, which projects that would eliminate its operating deficit for fiscal year 2025, and reduce its 2026 operating deficit from $307 million to about $13 million. 

  • Jim Allison, spokesperson for BART: “These funds are essential for maintaining BART service until we can get to a regional transportation measure in 2026 and a sustainable funding model thereafter.” 

The remaining funds would be distributed to the region’s other transit operators, which include Alameda County’s AC Transit, San Mateo County’s SamTrans and Caltrain.

The state’s guidance also leaves some flexibility for how the money is used. The California Transit Association, however, has said that the definition of “transit operator” was too broad and could lead to “undue pressure” to use the funds on construction projects that don’t serve the intended purpose, and that the deadlines for capital projects were not strict enough. 

Still, the flexibility is helpful to agencies who aren’t facing the same operations deficits. The Fresno Council of Governments could receive as much as $120 million to distribute to its three transit operators: the Fresno Area Express service, Clovis Transit and the Fresno County Rural Transportation Agency. But it doesn’t plan to use any of the money for operations. 

  • Paul Herman, principal regional planner for the council:Our operations costs aren’t nearly to the costs that you see in the major metro regions in the state. We are fully able to cover our costs through federal FTA funds and state funds and a half-cent sales tax that’s been in place for two decades.”

The other key part of the budget deal requires the state transportation agency to set up a transit “transformation” task force by Jan. 1 — with representatives from the department, local agencies, academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders — to develop policy recommendations to grow ridership and improve the experience for passengers. That’s still in the set-up process. 

And the state “bridge” funding is just that — a bridge. 

That’s why — after San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener abandoned an idea to increase Bay Area bridge tolls to help fund transit — the Metropolitan Transit Commission and Bay Area Association of Governments are making plans for a regional ballot measure in 2026, with legislation next year to allow that. 

For the record: This item has been updated to correct dollar amounts going to transit agencies.

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Newsom kicks off campaign for mental health prop

A homeless encampment at W Street and Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento on April 11, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

California voters will decide only one measure in the March 5 primary — and that’s exactly what Gov. Gavin Newsom wanted. He championed bills to borrow $6.4 billion to pay for 10,000 new mental health treatment beds and to overhaul California’s 20-year-old law that funds mental health services with a tax on millionaires. They will be combined into one proposition — Prop. 1. 

The Legislature cooperated by clearing the March ballot of potentially competing bond measures for schools, colleges and housing — and of three constitutional amendments, which were put off until the Nov. 5 general election

And Thursday, Newsom officially launched his campaign for the ballot measure, with the slogan “Treatment not Tents” — a nod to both public concern about homelessness and his efforts to clear encampments. Politico reports that he’s putting $6 million into the campaign to start.

  • Newsom, in a video: “Mental health has to be addressed differently, and California has to lead the way. People want to see people off the streets.”

By putting more money and the policy changes into a single measure, the governor may be trying to reduce opposition to revisions to the Mental Health Services Act, which itself was approved by voters in 2004. It levies a 1% tax on income of more than $1 million, generating about $3 billion last year and supporting about one-third of the state’s mental health system. 

Opponents say diverting money for housing will cut as much as $1 billion from existing mental health programs such as outpatient care and crisis response, while other advocates are against the bond money being spent on involuntary treatment.

Supporters include Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, author of the mental health act. The 310,000-member California Teachers Association has come out early with its endorsement, saying that Prop. 1 “recognizes and supports the critical need to expand a culturally competent and well-trained behavioral health care workforce.”

  • The teachers association, in a statement: “Prop. 1 will promote accountability with results for people with mental health and substance use disorders, including for children and youth, veterans, and unhoused people.”  

Applying for college after court ruling

Maya Murchison at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista on Oct. 23, 2023. Murchison, a high school senior, says the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has affected her college application process. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters
Maya Murchison, a senior at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista who says the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has affected her college applications, on Oct. 23, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

California’s public universities haven’t used affirmative action in deciding which students to admit for almost 30 years. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June that bans race-based admissions has drawn concern of a chilling effect on diversity amongst the state’s selective private colleges, many of whom rely on the process to attract students of color. 

Some students applying to colleges told CalMatters education reporters Mikhail Zinshteyn and Carolyn Jones that the ruling has left them frustrated but undaunted.

  • Maya Murchison, a high school senior in Chula Vista: “I want to go to a college where I feel comfortable and supported and confident. So yes, the ruling has definitely affected what schools I’m looking at. I want to know what colleges are doing to guarantee diversity.”

That means some of California’s private nonprofit colleges — which enroll around 180,000 undergraduates each year — are having to amp up their outreach efforts to avoid the same collapse in diversity the University of California system saw the first few years after state voters approved the 1996 ballot initiative that barred public institutions from considering race as a factor in admissions, contracting and hiring.

And if the UC’s story is any indication, that’s going to require a lot of money — but isn’t guaranteed to succeed.

  • Adam Sapp, director of admissions at Pomona College: “The reality is that we know in our backyard that we probably could have been doing more and we needed to do this work and felt like now was a good time to make that turn.”

Read more from Mikhail and Carolyn about how private colleges like Stanford and USC are approaching recruitment, financial aid and campus culture in light of the decision.

A somber anniversary for CA

As wildfires intensify, thousands of overworked California firefighters carry a heavy load of trauma, pain and grief. Here, firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo
Firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

Something you don’t hear often on the steps of the state Capitol is hope. But on Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, local leaders and community organizers impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire talked of recovery and resilience after the deadliest wildfire in California’s history

The Nov. 8, 2018 inferno led to 85 deaths and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, including 95% of buildings in Paradise, and in Concow. The total financial damage: upwards of $16 billion. 

While there was some optimism, full recovery is a ways away. In Paradise, according to the Camp Fire Collaborative, which co-hosted the event:

  • The population was 26,500 before the fire. Now, it’s 9,142.
  • Of 14,343 homes destroyed, 3,001 have been rebuilt, with another 978 homes under construction. 
  • The Paradise Unified School District, which had 3,400 students before the fire, now has 1,660.  

Parts of Butte County were hit again by the North Complex fire in 2020. Last month, the governor signed bills to give Camp Fire survivors three more years before their property is reassessed for taxes. Last year, he signed a bill exempting Fire Victim Trust settlement payments from state income taxes. 

But representatives from the county reiterated they needed the state’s ongoing support to continue that work — which includes testing water quality, repaving public roads and moving potentially hazardous electricity infrastructure underground. 

  • Megan Kurtz, chairperson of the Camp Fire Collaborative, in a statement: “As we commemorate this milestone, let us remember that ongoing collaboration remains crucial in rebuilding lives and healing our land.”

What are the challenges? Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher, from Chico, who co-hosted the event, noted that insurance is a huge challenge for both residents and the state, as well as streamlining the home-building process. 

More on wildfires: Also Thursday, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill in Congress to raise the caps on overtime pay for 11,000 federal wildland firefighters. The California lawmakers say the bill is needed because many firefighters work overtime without fair pay and that has contributed to a 20% vacancy rate.

Keep up with wildfire season with the CalMatters tracker, which is now using data by Watch Duty, a nonprofit that tracks and sends alerts in real time on wildfire and firefighting efforts in the West.   

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters events: The next event is Nov. 15 about California’s toxic waste problem and how to fix it. Register here.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

Photographer on state contract documents Newsom trip to China // Politico

Rep. Adam Schiff has homes in both California and Maryland // Sacramento Bee

Adam Schiff wins Assembly Speaker Rivas backing for Senate // Los Angeles Times

US Supreme Court wary of trademark for ‘Trump Too Small’ in CA case // New York Times

Poverty and long COVID go together for low-income Californians // Capital & Main

Climate change expands ‘zombie forests’ in Sierra Nevada // Los Angeles Times

Madera hospital had state health, safety violations before closing // Fresno Bee

Biden labor chief sees key role for unions to protect jobs from AI // San Francisco Chronicle

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Sameea Kamal is a reporter at CalMatters covering the state Capitol and California politics. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was...