Will California budget cuts take transit off track?
California’s projected $22.5 billion deficit means budget cuts are almost inevitable — much to the chagrin of climate activists, public health advocates and others who have criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal since its unveiling this week.
There's also likely to be pushback from the Legislature on Newsom’s proposals to cut money for public transit.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, let it be known Thursday that he is analyzing the impacts on transit — and potentially forming a “big coalition” to fight the proposal. That would include transit agencies, advocates and others in the Legislature.
- Wiener: “There are a lot of people in general, and a number of people in the Legislature, who are deeply concerned with the future of transportation given the fiscal cliff that agencies are going to experience in the next one to two years as federal emergency funds run out, but ridership has not fully rebounded yet. It could lead to significant service cuts, which is a downward death spiral for some of these agencies.”
What Wiener is raising alarms about is on page 51 of Newsom’s proposed budget, as part of the climate change section, since transit is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
- A $2 billion cut (in intercity projects) from the $7.7 billion set aside for transit capital infrastructure;
- A $200 million cut to bicycle and pedestrian programs;
- Delaying $350 million in funding to improve rail crossing safety from 2023-24 to 2025-26.
Sen. Nancy Skinner, the Oakland Democrat who leads the Senate Budget Committee, said she agrees with the governor’s approach to shifting or delaying funding except for core programs such as health care and childcare.
But is transit funding appropriate to delay? “The Legislature will have a lot of discussion about that,” she told CalMatters. “I think everyone in the Legislature would not want to have any funding shift, for example, for a public service like transit.”
Transit agencies were hit hard during the COVID pandemic — especially in the Bay Area, which both Wiener and Skinner represent.
- Michael Pimentel, executive director of the California Transit Association: “We’re going to be working with the Legislature throughout this budget process to identify a path forward to restoring the proposed cuts — but also to address this operational funding shortfall that agencies across the state are facing.”
If the revenue picture improves, it’s possible that the cuts will be restored and delays canceled.
Transit is also on the mind of state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach and chairperson of the Senate Transportation Committee, who said she plans to introduce a bill to ensure the state moves forward on its Clean Transportation Program with “sustainable funding to reduce transportation-related emissions and improve air quality for a healthier future for our families, especially those historically overburdened by pollution.”
And Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairperson of the budget subcommittee on transportation, said last year’s investments in transit reflect the state’s focus on regional equity, completion of major projects, and leveraging federal funds.
- Durazo: “If we are serious about climate mitigation and improving mobility and quality of life for all Californians, we must follow through on these investments.”
But transit advocates are also angry at Newsom for vetoing a bill last year that would have created more reduced fare pilot programs, including for students. Advocacy group MoveLA rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday to lobby again for free student passes.
- More budget news: The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office today released an initial review of the governor’s proposed budget, with more detailed reports in coming weeks. It agreed with Newsom about not dipping into reserves to cover the deficit, but said that the Legislature should look at cutting more one-time and temporary spending and that it should not include deficits in future years. The analyst’s office projected tax revenue at $5 billion less than the governor and pegged the “budget problem” at $18 billion, compared to the $24 billion it estimated in November. In that earlier report, the LAO also noted it expected higher inflation to persist — and that might require further spending reductions to balance the budget.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.