For the first time in three years, California public transit agencies could see a full dose of funding from the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund, thanks in large part to the passage of Proposition 22, which prevents legislators from raiding local government funds, and Governor Jerry Brown, who announced his “painful” budget plan yesterday.
The Brown administration said state funding for local transit agencies would amount to $329.6 million for fiscal year 2011-12, significantly more than each of the last two fiscal years. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had tried to zero out the fund  despite a court ruling, but the Legislature restored it , albeit at lower levels.
The state cuts are one reason why public transit agencies up and down the state, including Muni and AC Transit, have been forced to raise fares and cut service.
“We laud Governor Brown for keeping faith with voters who overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22 last November,” said Doran Barnes, the chair of the California Transit Association. “The governor’s solutions acknowledge the vital role transit plays in moving our citizens to jobs and maintaining mobility in this tough economy.”
According to the governor’s budget document on business and transportation [pdf ], the fund would be paid for by reenacting last year’s gas tax swap . In addition, local transit agencies will continue to receive “the equivalent of 75 percent of diesel sales tax revenues.” The budget must still be approved by the Legislature.
In San Francisco, SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said Muni stands to get about $30 million for fiscal year 2011-12.
“While we’d always like to see more funds coming our way to improve service and further our programs, we’re encouraged that this doesn’t project further cuts to our operating budget,” said Rose.
Joshua Shaw, the head of the California Transit Association, acknowledged the organization has a little damage control to do with legislators. Some representatives were angered that CTA and other local government groups campaigned to put Proposition 22 on the ballot, because they felt it would tie their hands on the budget even further.
“We get it. We understand that they don’t like their choices being constrained, however, we were ultimately unable to prevail with any legislator over the past several years to stop cutting more deeply and deeply into the transit program,” said Shaw, whose concerns prevailed as voters overwhelmingly passed Prop 22. “We felt we had no choice but to go to the voters and say, this has to stop.”
Shaw said the transit community along with others who care about streets management and even highway projects will all “sing off the same chorus page now in saying to those legislators ‘we get you have a General Fund problem, there are solutions.'”
The feeling among many transit advocates in Sacramento is that, given the draconian cuts other programs are facing, getting almost $330 this year is actually a victory, even though it doesn’t even begin to address the real need.
“There’s no money available for expansion of funding but the good news is there are no proposed cuts,” said Graham Brownstein, the statewide policy director for the transit non-profit TransForm. ” He credited Brown with making sure that 75 percent of the diesel fuel tax goes to transit, instead of 50 percent.
Brownstein said he’s not counting on any major reforms for transportation or transit this year, considering the grim budget scenario, but he sees the situation improving in the next three years.
“Lots and lots of advocates in the Capitol are running around plotting major policy efforts but most of those folks are kidding themselves,” said Brownstein. “There is no appetite for that this year and to the extent that kind of stuff takes people’s time and energy away from the core concerns it could be detrimental to our interests. It’s really important that folks be very realistic about the limited options this year.”