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Bay Area lawmakers push state to shore up cash-strapped transit agencies

A MUNI bus transits Market Street in San Francisco Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is leading a statewide coalition to petition legislative leaders to rescue billions in state funding for struggling transit agencies, according to a letter on Thursday. 

“We write to formalize our call for the state to provide sorely needed transit operations funding as part of next fiscal year’s budget,” the legislators wrote. “California’s transit agencies are facing major funding shortfalls—in some cases, as early as this coming year—that would seriously impact the ability to maintain service for Californians, including our most vulnerable residents.”

The letter urges lawmakers to restore prior commitments to the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) and to extend pandemic relief, such as waiver of financial penalties and flexibility in state funds, through 2025. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a budget proposal on Jan. 10 that cuts almost $6 billion from capital programs, including for climate and transit infrastructure. The cuts are part of an effort to close the state’s projected $22.5 billion deficit.

State Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin also said that local transit agencies will be asked to tighten their belts. Transit agencies facing fiscal cliffs will hopefully receive further aid from the federal government, he said. 

In San Francisco, the Municipal Transportation Agency, which administers the Muni transit systems as well as street projects, has suffered fiscal setbacks, including the failure to pass a $400 million general obligation bond last year, and continues to suffer a structural deficit

Both Muni and BART have been able to use federal Covid aid to stay afloat through 2025, but will then face fiscal cliffs, with yawning deficits of $76 million and hundreds of million respectively. 

Wiener, along with fellow Sens. Ben Allen of Redondo Beach and Catherine Blakespear of Encinitas, along with Assemblymembers Matt Haney of San Francisco, Wendy Carrillo of Glendale, Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles, Mia Bonta of Oakland and others signed on to the letter. It was sent to Senate President Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and respective budget chairs on Wednesday. 

In a series of tweets Thursday, Wiener reiterated that while he understands Newsom’s quandary in tackling the deficit, any short-term savings gained in cutting transit programs will have long-term damage. 

The legislators warned in the letter that transit service cuts increase automobile congestion and carbon emissions, and reduce mobility for Californians. 

The legislature has until June 15 to pass the budget, and hearings on the transit cuts could be held anytime between now and then.