How much should California spend to build up public transit?
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, Assemblymember 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, which also reported today that the number of canceled trains tripled in 2022.
Also today, state Sen. Steve Glazer announced that he’s resigning from the Senate Select Committee on Bay Area Public Transit because there hasn’t been enough financial oversight.
- Glazer, in a statement: “Bay Area leaders have not stepped up to fix the fiscal oversight problems with BART, as well as the underfunding of the Inspector General’s office. When these problems are addressed, I will join with my colleagues and support greater transit funding.”
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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Other Stories You Should Know
1 CA’s hazardous waste handoff
State lawmakers are planning an oversight hearing to look at hazardous waste issues — including how California businesses and government agencies routinely dispose of contaminated soil in states with weaker environmental regulations, as revealed by a CalMatters investigation last month.
Reporting by CalMatters’ Robert Lewis showed that those California entities dispose of waste in Utah and Arizona — including at one landfill with a spotty environmental record — as opposed to within the state, where it would need to go to specialized hazardous waste disposal facilities.
One of the biggest out-of-state dumpers is California’s own hazardous waste watchdog, the Department of Toxic Substances Control. It has continued to take its toxic waste to Arizona despite the revelations, according to information the department recently provided.
The as-yet-unscheduled hearing looking into efforts to improve the department was already in the works, but the chairperson of the state Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee said it will now also probe the out-of-state dumping.
- Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach: “I think at a gut level, everybody feels as though every state should be handling its own toxic waste and not sending it across borders to other states and countries with less stringent environmental standards.”
Toxic waste: You can hear Robert on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” talk about his story on how California sends nearly half its toxic waste out of state, which took him to tribal lands in Arizona and the shores of Great Salt Lake.
More action in the Legislature: During the nation’s interstate highway construction boom in the 1950s and ’60s, many urban neighborhoods were sliced apart, isolating areas largely populated by minorities and low-income residents from surrounding communities — and from economic opportunity.
Local and state governments across the nation are now exploring ways to undo some of that harm, including in California, writes CalMatters’ California Divide reporter Wendy Fry. Last week, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon appointed Assemblymember David Alvarez, a Democrat from San Diego, to lead a new Select Committee on Reconnecting Communities.
A project in San Diego will serve as a test run: In the Barrio Logan neighborhood, a stretch of land along Interstate 5 will become a community space and park. In coming months, the new committee will hold public informational hearings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego to further develop proposals to address systemic injustices and inequality, according to Alvarez’s office.
- Alvarez: “Many communities, like Logan Heights and Sherman Heights [in the San Diego area], were devastated by the super highway system. I intend to focus the committee’s work on reconnecting neighbors and creating new opportunities, like park space and affordable housing.”
More inaction in the Legislature: Assemblymember Heath Flora of Lodi introduced a motion Monday to end the special session called by Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact a windfall profits penalty on oil refiners. Since Flora and other Republicans are so badly outnumbered, the maneuver went nowhere fast.
But the move did allow Assembly Republicans to immediately blast Democrats for backing “the Governor’s effort to deflect blame for high gas prices from the state’s taxes and regulations.” There was bipartisan skepticism at the first legislative hearing last week on Newsom’s proposal.
2 COVID state of emergency ends
Today is the last day of California’s COVID-19 state of emergency, as Gov. Newsom officially terminated his declaration. It comes more than three years after the state recorded the nation’s first case — and after the loss of at least 100,000 lives in California.
So where does the state go from here?
CalMatters health reporter Kristen Hwang says it will lean on its $3.2 billion long-term COVID-19 plan, which involves stockpiling masks and vaccines, but public health agencies will no longer serve as the primary provider of COVID-19 care.
For some community organizations and local public health departments across the state, resources have already run out or will be gone by summer. Federal support will also expire when the nationwide emergency ends in May.
Public health experts say the disappearance of COVID-19 resources is merely a reminder that the health disparities between people of different ethnicities and income levels highlighted during the pandemic are long entrenched.
- Kim Rhoads, a physician and associate public health professor at UC San Francisco: “People who were in the gap are going to go back into the gap. There’s going to be a noticeable difference in access.”
State public health officials acknowledged the “very real toll the pandemic has taken on Californians,” but remained confident its long-term strategy would be sufficient: “California is equipped to manage the spread of COVID-19, and to continue to limit hospitalizations and deaths as much as possible.”
In other COVID-19 news: On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency authorization for the first at-home test that can detect both COVID-19 and the flu, NPR reports. Like traditional COVID-19 tests, the at-home kits include a nasal swab that can detect whether a person is positive or negative for COVID, as well as influenza A and influenza B, within 30 minutes. The test was developed by California-based Lucira Health, which in 2020 received the first FDA approval for at-home rapid COVID tests.
3 Fight over voting machines
Advocacy groups are urging Shasta County supervisors to reconsider their decision to end the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems, which provides equipment to mark and count ballots. The nonpartisan groups say the county’s termination without an alternative so close to the March 2024 presidential primary could have dire consequences on how the election is run and how accessible it is, and could further undermine voter confidence.
Dominion’s voting machines became a target of election deniers following the 2020 election. A review by the federal cybersecurity intelligence agency found there were no instances of the machines being exploited for election fraud purposes. The company is also suing Fox News for $1.6 billion, alleging defamation in the network’s airing of false fraud claims following the election.
Still, the Shasta County board — which was taken over by right-wing Republicans last year in a county that’s a California hotbed for the MAGA “Stop the Steal” movement — voted 3-2 to end the contract at its Jan. 24 meeting.
- Mary Rickert, county supervisor and a “no” vote: “There has been no solid proof or evidence of voter fraud, and I am appalled at the waste of taxpayer dollars by discontinuing this system. It will cost over $2 million to replace this system, at a time when we have one level of our county jail closed. These dollars could be better spent elsewhere.”
- The advocacy groups, in their Feb. 23 letter: “Switching your county’s voting system so close to a major election could result in numerous otherwise avoidable errors and administrative problems that could, in turn, erode public trust in the county’s voting processes, undermining the stated intent behind the Board’s initial decision.”
The groups also said a shift could impact voting accessibility for those with disabilities, in addition to the impact to the county’s budget.
Dominion is one of a handful of approved voting machine systems certified by California’s Secretary of State. The Secretary of State’s office and county elections offices conduct in-depth testing on machines beginning months before elections.
- Cathy Darling Allen, Shasta County Clerk: “We would never make the decision, absent some kind of crisis, to change voting systems prior to a presidential election.”
On Monday, Allen was already at work coordinating demonstrations of other state-approved voting systems. “I understand that to laypeople and perhaps to our board chair it may feel like the presidential election is 2 years away, but we start candidate filing for the primary in less than 9 months,” Allen said. “It’s a very heavy lift to completely change the system. It’s something we need a lot of time and resources to help us make that happen in an accurate and secure way for 2024.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Gov. Gavin Newsom accuses the oil industry of price gouging and wants to impose penalties on excess profits, but his proposal faces bipartisan skepticism.
Water education is vital for Latino workers, who bear the heaviest burden of keeping California’s food system functioning and who are most frequently plagued by water contamination and scarcity, writes Victor Griego, founder of Water Education for Latino Leaders.
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Democrats want to cut slavery from California Constitution // Los Angeles Times
Bill to expand coverage to migrants may test Newsom’s pledge on universal health care // California Healthline
Black San Francisco residents could get $5 million each in reparations // Washington Post
Pipeline debate at center of California carbon capture plans // AP News
As gas bills shock, SoCalGas hopes to raise rates in 2024 // Los Angeles Times
Will a California Republican jump into the U.S. Senate race? // San Francisco Chronicle
Congressman questions Rep. Chu’s ‘loyalty,’ drawing criticism // Los Angeles Times
California tripled its spending on Sacramento’s homelessness crisis. Here’s where the money went // CapRadio
Chaos during homeless camp closure highlights dire stakes, lack of trust // Oaklandside
Bay Area nun made gang-ridden neighborhood livable // San Francisco Chronicle
Shocking gas bills push restaurants to the brink of closures // Los Angeles Times
U.S. Supreme Court snuffs company challenge to Los Angeles flavored-tobacco ban // Reuters
26 arrested in gang takedown following Goshen massacre // Los Angeles Times