SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sadaf Zahoor has bucked California’s car culture by never owning one, yet she and other residents who rely on public transit worry its bleak financial outlook could soon leave them standing at empty train stations and bus stops.
The agencies running the public transit systems, particularly in San Francisco and Oakland, where Zahoor lives, have been living off billions of dollars in federal aid that will soon expire.
Ridership plummeted by as much as 94% during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a gaping budget deficit. Fare box revenues have rebounded a bit, but with more people working from home, some systems haven’t returned to even half their previous levels.
The transit agencies have asked Democrats who control California’s government to rescue them, much like Democrats in New York recently did with a $227 billion spending plan. The request is proving to be a much tougher sell in the nation’s most populous state, where majestic mountain highways and seas of suburban single-family homes have made it far more automobile-reliant than much of the Northeast.
“If there were any sort of major changes, that would definitely affect my ability to get to work,” said Zahoor, 36, who figures she would have to team up with friends to buy a group car because she couldn’t afford one on her own.
The California Transit Association says transit agencies will have a collective shortfall of about $6 billion over the next five years. The state, which relies heavily on taxes paid by wealthy people, is projected to have a $31.5 billion budget deficit this year amid a struggling stock market and layoffs in the tech industry.
Instead of bailing out public transit agencies, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed slashing $2 billion from their infrastructure funding to help balance the books.
H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the California Department of Finance, said Newsom’s proposed budget cuts to numerous agencies “were necessary to address the shortfall” but the governor has pledged to restore the money if revenues rebound next year.
Bay Area Rapid Transit has warned if the state doesn’t help out, it could force the agency to stop running after 9 p.m. and on weekends, while limiting regular service to just one train per hour.
Activists for transit say scaling back services is sure to only exacerbate the problem.
“It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg,” said Stephanie Lotshaw, acting executive director at TransitCenter, an advocacy group for public transportation systems across the U.S. “If you disinvest in it, then people won’t use it. But if you invest in it, arguably more people will use it because it actually becomes a service that’s usable.”
The pandemic was particularly damaging to Bay Area Rapid Transit because as much as 70% of its revenue came from fares — far higher than most other transit systems, said Janice Li, president of the transit system’s board of directors. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, relies less on public transit than San Francisco, although voters have expressed support for it in recent years.
At the very least, Li said, California legislators should pass a stopgap measure to keep transit afloat until the 2026 election, when local voters could decide whether to pay more.
“We are not asking for the world, and we are not asking for the world indefinitely, either,” Li said.
The White House has said states have flexibility to redirect some of the federal money typically used for road construction and repairs to transit operations, but many drivers call that a non-starter.
“We have the highest gas tax in the nation, and our roads are still in very poor condition,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a California group opposing tax hikes. “If we’re looking at transportation generally, the money is better spent on those systems that people actually use, which in California is roads and highways.”
Transit officials are making their pitch by appealing not just to regular riders but also to drivers who could face much more congested traffic if other options are gone. According to Bay Area Rapid Transit, almost twice as many people travel at rush hour under the Bay Bridge by train than over it by car.
Supporters have turned to creative marketing — selling flip flops featuring a picture of BART's service map and even staging a mock funeral for transit last weekend in Oakland.
“We’re doing our best but not sure what is possible at this point,” said Vinita Goyal, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Legislative leaders have pledged to reject Newsom’s $2 billion in cuts and make it OK for agencies to use some of that money for operations. State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco, said that’s still not enough.
“In every community in California, there are people who rely on the bus, and they are not the most powerful people. They tend to be lower income. They tend to be nonwhite. They tend to be disproportionately seniors or students,” Wiener said. “Why on Earth we would for a minute contemplate allowing these systems to fall apart is beyond me.”
San Francisco resident Gabriel Goffman bought his condo last year because it was on three bus lines. One has already closed due to budget constraints and another is on the chopping block.
“I moved here with three buses, and now it’s like, ‘How many are going to be back?’” said Goffman, 35.
Newsom and state lawmakers have until the end of June to agree to a budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. It’s possible the negotiations for what to do about public transit agencies could drag on into the fall.
Janno Lieber, chair and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the nation’s largest public transit system — said state leaders there saw there was no choice but to save the subway stations, which he called as vital to New York City's survival as “air and water.”
“Transit is literally existential for New York,” Lieber said. “We could see that the federal money was going to run out in ’24, and we couldn’t allow us to enter into a new fiscal year (not knowing) if we were going to have to massively cut service, fire a bunch of people or dramatically raise fares.”
California Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco and chair of the powerful Assembly Budget Committee, questions whether public transit agencies in his state have adequately prepared for the loss of federal funding. He said further state money should come with conditions.
“On the one hand, they’re raising the alarms. There’s a fiscal cliff,” Ting said. “But if you look at their business operations, it’s business as usual, which is just not acceptable.”
Backers of more money for California transit say its cities don’t need to be as reliant on the service as a place like New York to make it a worthy investment for a state that's considering the environmental and economic benefits of reducing automobile traffic.
“This is culture. It takes a long time to change,” California state Sen. Ben Allen said. “One way to assure it doesn’t catch on is by letting the system fail.”