Red ink stains green rhetoric - Page 2

A state report encourages increased use of mass transit, but the governor's budget proposal denies the public transportation fund more than $1 billion. Plus: Transit Funding 101

At the same time, billions of dollars have been allocated to highway expansion programs, exacerbating the global warming problem.

"Anybody's budget should be a reflection of their values, whether it's an individual or an agency," said Carli Paine, transportation program director for the Transportation and Land Use Coalition. "The state is saying, 'We value public transportation as a climate friendly choice.' Yet when it comes to expressing those values in the budget, we say, 'It doesn't matter that much,' so we're actually undermining those original statements."

The governor's revised state budget allocated $306 million to the State Transit Assistance Program, the state's source of funding for mass transit operating costs such as maintenance, drivers, fuel, and mechanics.

This is the same amount that was allocated last year, even though transit ridership is the highest it has been in more than 50 years, according to a June report by the American Public Transportation Association. And factor in that crude oil is about $140 per barrel now compared to about $73 per barrel this time in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, a federal agency. "The budget is kicking transit in the teeth when it needs it [money] the most," Radulovich said.

The $306 million allocated to the State Transit Assistance Program comes from funds generated by Prop. 42, the voter-approved gasoline tax measure. But Paine said the STAP should also be entitled to what is called "spillover" money. Spillover refers to additional funds generated when the price of gas rises faster than inflation on other goods, leading to unusually high revenue from the tax.

The governor's budget predicts $1.77 billion in spillover for the 2008–09 fiscal year, but he decided to put the money toward shrinking the deficit instead of funding public transportation. The current fiscal year was the first time since the proposition passed that the spillover did not go toward public transportation.

Radulovich said he believes the state is hesitant to fund mass transit — even though it recognizes the importance of reducing the number of cars on the road — because building more roads and freeways leads to more expansion and urban sprawl.

"Sprawl makes a lot of people a lot of money," he said, including oil companies, car companies, homebuilders, construction firms, and trucking companies. "These are political questions, not policy questions. The policy answers in many ways are very clear. The question is whether there is the political will to deal with it, and that's what we're going to find out."

Radulovich said this reality is why many California business groups support outward expansion and put pressure on the government to fund highways over mass transit. The Bay Area Council, for example, pushed aggressively for highway expansion during the last budget cycle.

Paine said she believes political pressure also comes from structural flaws in the state's budget system.

"It's the legacy of Prop. 13, which really froze the income our state received from [property] taxes," she said. "Public entities that are committed to social services, such as education, are still receiving property taxes at levels that are decades behind what they used to be." This puts a strain on the state's general fund, and money has to be diverted from the mass transit account to relieve the burden generated by California's low income tax levels, Paine explained.

Paine said a new budget proposal has been submitted to the California legislature that would restore hundreds of millions of dollars to the mass transit account for the 2008-09 fiscal year by generating additional revenue for the general fund.

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