First let’s take a quick look at how we got here and why this is on the table, then we’ll move on to what is actually being considered. First, you are all aware by now that AC Transit is currently look at proposals to reduce service by 15%. This is necessary for a number of reasons. Steep declines in sales tax revenue due to the poor economy should have been offset by the overwhelming passage of Measure VV, a parcel tax increase for AC Transit, last November. Unfortunately, the State, because of their own budget problems, then went ahead and cut basically all of the operating assistance they provide to local transit agencies, putting AC Transit back in the hole. AC Transit took another hit with the State’s decision to
steal “borrow” local property tax revenues, and although they had a fairly hefty reserve, it wasn’t enough to keep the buses going forever without State assistance. As a result, the agency had to raise fares and cut service to make up the shortfall.
If the service cuts currently being considered are implemented, AC Transit’s service hours will be at their second lowest level in, well, basically forever, but since the actual figures I’m working off only go back to 1986, we’ll just say over 20 years. The service will not be at half the level it was 10 years ago, as some have claimed at recent (unrelated) meetings, it will be about 10% lower than it was 10 years ago, and marginally higher than it was in 1996-97. Of course, since AC Transit was in complete crisis back then and had slashed service to basically nothing in many areas, this is rather cold comfort.
The second issue is also the fault of problems with the State. A large portion of the planned funding for BRT was supposed to come from State dollars that get used for capital transportation improvement projects. Since the State is broke, these funds are no longer there. So BRT is now short a significant portion of the funding needed to build it no matter what.
Which brings us to tomorrow’s meeting. The question at hand is whether or not AC Transit should take some of the money that is left for BRT and use it instead to prevent some of the proposed service cuts. (PDF)
Now, for those of you who have heard many times that the BRT funding can’t be used for operations, this may be confusing news. You may be wondering if everyone has just been lying to you this whole time? The answer is no. Reprogramming the funds for operations is not simple and it may not even be possible. But to find out, the Board has to agree they even want to do it first, hence the special meeting. If they give the go ahead, here’s what would happen.
The BRT project is currently expected to be funded from (like all big transit projects) a variety of sources, including federal, state, and local funds. The State funds, like we said, are gone. That leaves us with a number of other sources, two of which AC Transit thinks they might be able to divert to service.
First, we have $35 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money. CMAQ money is supposed to do, well, pretty much what it sounds like – reduce congestion and improve air quality, and are permitted to be used for operations on new and/or expanded bus lines for no more than three years. So, if (and that is a big if, because these funds are supposed to be used for BRT) both the MTC and the FTA say yes, AC Transit might be able to use this money to restore service on more heavily used lines that are getting sliced under the service reduction plan.
The second funding source potentially available for diversion is $45.6 million from Regional Measure 2. Regional Measure 2 was a bridge toll passed in 2004 by Bay Area voters. The money from the tolls is funding a wide variety of capital projects around the Bay Area, all of which were specifically included in a spending plan that was part of the measure. Included in this spending plan is funding for the East 14th/Telegraph BRT project, and it is explicitly earmarked for that project.
But RM2 also provides some funding for transit operations. What AC Transit is considering asking the MTC to do is basically to take away their RM2 money for BRT and give it to some other capital project (which is allowed – a recent example is the MTC taking away $50 million in RM2 funds earmarked for the Transbay Tube seismic retrofit project and giving it to the Oakland Airport Connector instead). Then, the MTC would take the same amount of money (split up over a number of years) out of the operating funding they give to whatever agency is getting the BRT capital funds and give it to AC Transit instead.
Whether the MTC will agree to do this is not yet clear. AC Transit has asked MTC Executive Director about the possibility of a funding shift, and the response was that they should have a meeting and talk about it in October.
I’m a little bit torn about this from a process perspective. I voted for RM2, and I’ve complained repeatedly on this blog about the City playing funny games with the way they use money from special taxes. If you ask the voters for extra money and tell them you will do something specific with it, then you need to keep that promise. So in that sense, reprogramming the money is just plain wrong. On the other hand, that ship sailed a long time ago with respect to RM2, and it’s clear at this point that there isn’t going to be enough money to do many of the projects in that spending plan. So I can’t really get all that worked up about one more diversion at this point.
So if the Board decides they want to go this route and if the MTC gives them the OK to do it, what happens? Well, they would have enough new money to prevent half of the proposed service cuts and keep funding those lines for the next six years, at which point we all hope the economy will have recovered, and maybe the State will even start giving back the transit assistance they stole. (As if!)
As for where it leaves BRT, well, that part is less clear. AC Transit will continue their current work to select locally preferred alternatives and complete work on the Final EIR/EIS. But they’ll have spent or lost most of the money they had available to build the damn thing. They can of course pursue new dedicated funding from some other sources, but there is absolutely no question that this decision would be a drastic setback to the project. It could leave us in a situation where it will either never be built, be built years after we had all hoped, or in the best possible scenario, re-scoped so it is a much smaller project (running initially only down East 14th and not up Telegraph, for example).
Which brings us to the big question – is this the right thing to do or not? I have to say, when I first heard that AC Transit was considering this, I was so stunned and upset and that I couldn’t even think of any questions to ask about it. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I still pretty much hate the idea. Many people have worked very hard for years to get BRT off the ground. The East Bay deserves fast and reliable transit service, and we are never going to be able to attract people to public transit in substantial numbers if we can’t offer them a real, practical alternative to driving, something BRT can actually do. And for a fraction of the cost of other systems with similar benefits.
But as I’ve had more time to think about it over the past couple weeks, I’ve warmed to the idea considerably. As important of a project as BRT is, now is simply not the right time to be pursuing legacy projects. Every time I start thinking about how it would be short-sighted to delay BRT or even risk not building it, I remember the Airport Connector and how angry it makes me that BART is so desperate to pour millions into it at the expense of both their present and future riders. The difference, of course, is that the Airport Connector is a terrible project and BRT is a good one. But still.
Any lingering doubts I may have had about whether trying to divert the money is the right thing to do completely evaporated last night as I sat through AC Transit’s public hearing on the service reductions and listened to scores of people stand up and beg and plead for AC Transit to spare their bus. These people weren’t angry or obnoxious or horrible, entitled assholes like those parking meter people who showed up at Council the other night. (I should note that not all the anti-parking meter people are assholes – Carl Chan of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce spoke very reasonably at the meeting, and there are merchant groups who want the hours rolled back, but are trying to help the City find ways to do it that don’t compromise services. I disagree with these people, but do not think they are acting irresponsibly, and just want to make it very clear that they’re not the ones I’m complaining about here.) The overwhelming majority of people at last night’s hearing were polite, respectful, and understanding of the situation AC Transit is in. They didn’t angrily demand that their service stay exactly the same. Instead, person after person stood up and offered their heartbreaking story of how this route or that is a lifeline that they need to get to school or to work or to services, explaining how they would be left totally stranded without it. They begged for service as little as once an hour (or even less), happily offering to let go of their weekend or night service without complaint as long as they could just have some access at all.
It is, of course, an extremely difficult decision, and I would hate to be sitting on that dais having to choose between potentially compromising the agency’s future and avoiding cuts today. But when it comes down to it, preserving a vital service for people with no other options is more important than someday getting more people out of their cars and attracting choice riders and spurring green, transit-oriented development and all that. People need these buses, and if there is any way at all to keep them running and prevent the worst of the cuts, then going down that road is really the only ethical thing to do. It is heartbreaking, though.