April 10, 2014

By Richard Marcantonio

For a decade now, we’ve been working to eliminate disparities in public transit. We took our lead from low-income bus riders in the Bay Area, who consistently expressed alarm at cuts to bus service and unaffordable fare hikes. As those riders began to understand that their bus system could only run as much service as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) funded it to run, they drew the connection between MTC’s priority for costly capital expansion projects aimed at commuter services like BART and Caltrain, and under-funding for local bus service.

During the course of the Darensburg v MTC litigation that Public Advocates and our co-counsel filed in 2005, we followed the money. That meant drilling down to examine dozens of federal, state, regional and local sources of transportation revenue. We found that part of the problem was that many of those funding sources are restricted to capital use. But we also identified significant sources that are available to cover operating expenses. Operating expenses cover the salaries of the drivers and mechanics who actually keep the buses running.

Despite the relative dearth of operating funds, MTC’s practice has been to divert what little potential operating revenue there is into capital expansion – like spending upwards of $100 million per mile of new BART track. Just as bus riders long suspected, this emphasis on capital expansion comes at the expense of the bus service they depend on.

MTC’s argument in Darensburg was that its hands were tied by federal and state capital-only restrictions. Yet year after year, MTC focused its significant lobbying operation in both Sacramento and Washington on more capital funds, rather than asking for more of the operating funds that bus systems need to deliver reliable and affordable transit service.

When the Darensburg case went to trial in October 2008, we were unsuccessful in persuading the court that MTC’s prioritization of rail capital over bus operations had a discriminatory impact on minority bus riders. But that was just the start.

In late 2008 and early 2009, we began raising the need for increased operating support for local transit in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. We filed a successful friend of the court brief on behalf of TransForm, the Bus Riders Union, Urban Habitat and other groups, arguing that transit operating support was not only a use required by law for gas tax trust funds, but also use that would promote key economic, environmental and social justice goals in California.

We then took our message to D.C., meeting with members of the Obama transition team and Congressional offices to spread the message that the new President’s stimulus package should include $4 billion to increase transit operations.

That message was novel at the time, and met with a great deal of skepticism. But it also came at a time when transit service cuts and fare hikes were becoming a national crisis. The outcome was that, in the Spring of 2009, Congress amended the stimulus bill to allow a portion of its transportation funding to be used for emergency operating purposes.

Meanwhile, we found receptive partners here in California, including the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union and many groups in the Bay Area. And we took our message to national coalition partners, including Transit Riders for Public Transportation, the Transportation Equity Network, the American Public Transportation Association, and Transportation for America, which made the call to expand federal operating assistance a priority in their federal policy platforms. The drumbeat grew loud enough that we even succeeded in getting a bill introduced in Congress.

In Sacramento, after the court agreed with us on gas tax funds, the Schwarzenegger administration found a loophole. But we spotted another big opportunity came last year, as California began planning how to use revenue generated by the Cap and Trade system under AB 32. That revenue, $850 million in the proposed FY 2014-15 budget alone, must be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and 25 percent of it must benefit disadvantaged communities under SB 535 (de León). Operating more transit and reducing fares in order to build ridership was a perfect fit.

Dedicating Cap and Trade revenue to transit operations became a leading priority of two coalitions we work with in Sacramento, the SB 535 Coalition andSustainable Communities for All. With our coalition partners, we ultimately succeeded in getting the State Transit Assistance program, a key source of transit operating revenue, included as an eligible expenditure in the Air Resources Board’s final Investment Plan.

We have not yet won this fight. The Governor’s proposed budget addresses a number of coalition priorities (including at least a limited program for giving some riders free transit passes), but still does not include transit operating support. At a meeting at the Air Resources Board earlier this year, ARB Chair Mary Nichols relied on MTC’s chart purporting to show low GHG reduction benefits from increased bus service. That chart is backed by no analysis MTC has been willing to share with us.

On the other hand, MTC has recently been moving away from the “our hands are tied” position it took in the Darensburg case. In fact, in the course of developing Plan Bay Area, MTC acknowledged its flexibility to shift so-called “capital-only” funding sources totaling $3 billion to operating purposes.

Our long-term advocacy for bus riders has changed the terms of the debate. Today, a growing chorus is joining us in asking the Governor and Legislature to fund the local transit service that will connect low-income residents to opportunity while reducing traffic and emissions and growing our economy. And we were pleasantly surprised when MTC issued its latest Cap and Trade lobbying brochure, identifying transit operations as one of five priorities for funding.  Maybe our message is finally getting through.

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