Red ink stains green rhetoric - Page 3

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

She said that since 2000, more than $3 billion of mass transit money has been redirected to the general fund, and the number will exceed $4 billion if the governor's current proposal goes through.

"This isn't just a problem this year — it's a chronic problem. And public transportation is chronically being leaned on for relief," she said. "It's just not a sustainable system."


Carli Paine of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition explained the finer points of California's complicated system for funding — or not funding — improvements to the public transit system. Transit's main account is called the State Transit Assistance Program. This money is flexible, but is mostly used for transit operations (maintenance, operations, fuel, mechanics, drivers, and so forth). Sometimes, though, it is used for capital projects (such as buying new tracks or replacement cars).

The STAP is the largest portion of the public transportation account, and the funding is critical. As Paine put it, "If you can't even operate the system that you have, it doesn't help much to have money to lay new tracks." The STAP is therefore often the focus of discussions about transit funding.

Prop. 42, which directs California's gas tax to transportation projects, funds the STAP, although not all Prop. 42 money goes there. For example, 25 percent of Prop. 42 revenue goes to a special account for transit capital projects.

Prop. 1B is another big source of transit funding. It is the 2006 measure that allowed California to sell $19.9 billion worth of bonds to fund transportation programs. Only about $4 billion of that was allocated to public transportation, with the lion's share of the money going toward new freeway projects.

This is where things get a little complicated.

California originally had a sales tax on all goods except gasoline. In the 1970s, voters passed Prop. 42, which decided that it would be more equitable to reduce the sales tax rate by a fraction of a percentage point, but expand the sales tax to include gasoline.

This was expected to be revenue-neutral for the state, so it wouldn't cost people more. That was true unless gas prices rose quicker than the cost of all goods, which it eventually did.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan argued that it was important to return the extra revenue to public transportation because when gas prices rise, more people use public transit. As a result, this "spillover" has been set aside for transit expansion.

Last year was the first year in which the spillover was diverted to the general fund instead of being given to the STAP. It was redirected to help close the state deficit, and the 2008–09 budget proposes doing the same thing this fiscal year. (Janna Brancolini)

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