Will the Federal Stimulus Even Reach Muni?

by Paul Hogarth on February 11, 2009

As Congress debates the federal stimulus package and how much will go to public transit, action today by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) could deprive Muni, AC Transit and other agencies much-needed revenue. The MTC’s Programming and Allocations Committee will consider a plan to take $145 million out of stimulus dollars intended for Bay Area transit operators – diverting it to capital projects that are not “shovel-ready.” One project, a light-rail connecting Oakland Airport with the Coliseum BART station, will help just a sliver of riders and do nothing for those dependent on transit every day. The other, a “train box” for Transbay Terminal to get high-speed trains to San Francisco, is a worthy goal – but we won’t see the benefit for years. Muni faces a $100 million deficit, as the agency struggles to provide bus service to low-income residents – but could lose millions in precious federal funds today. In bad economic times, transit agencies are suffering – and may raise fares almost immediately if they don’t get more revenue. If local officials are serious about an economic stimulus, they must use the federal funds directly to keep our buses and trains running.

While Congress allocates federal transportation dollars to the local level, who decides how much each transit agency gets will be the MTC – a 19-member body of Bay Area elected and government officials. San Francisco has two seats – Supervisor Chris Daly, and an appointee of Mayor Newsom – and other counties generally also have two representatives (a Mayor and County Supervisor.) Although the state government may end up having final say, the Commission potentially controls billions of transit dollars from federal sources that could make a real difference in making public transportation accessible.

Funding for transit operations are falling off a cliff due to the economy and state budget. San Francisco Muni has a $100 million deficit, in part because of its declining revenues. The agency is planning to raise fares in July, and is working to improve its Lifeline Pass so that low-income riders don’t get left out. Its Transportation Effectiveness Project (which has been years in the making) is now in jeopardy because of its mammoth deficit – delaying urgently needed changes along heavily trafficked lines, such as the N-Judah.

But Muni alone could lose $38 million today in federal funds – more than the $27 million voters allocated by passing Prop A in November 2007 (when Muni touted the money as a means of making desperately needed changes.) The difference Muni could get from the federal stimulus – depending on whether MTC diverts the money to two capital projects – is between $104 million and $66 million. And if the deeply flawed Senate version of the stimulus package becomes reality, Muni could even get less.

One criticism we’ve heard about the federal stimulus is that most of the funds would go to “shovel ready” capital projects. But here, the MTC would actively consider diverting precious transit dollars to projects that won’t be available for construction in years. The Transbay Center Train Box project is still $120 million short, and it still needs to work out various “ownership/access” issues between various public entities. And Oakland’s “Airport Connector” was thought to be eliminated because, by the MTC’s own admission, the number of projected riders has decreased.

Now is not the time for some lofty proposals that won’t help the Bay Area work out its transportation needs for at least a decade. What our residents need now is concrete steps to keep the trains and buses running on time. It may not be as sexy as a new monorail to connect the Airport to a BART station, but it will help get the economy moving again.

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