Last year, commuters of all kinds came to terms with one fact: getting somewhere, anywhere, is harder than it used to be. Here in the Bay Area, drivers faced higher gas prices and bridge tolls. AC Transit riders dealt with fewer bus lines and increased fares. San Francisco Muni riders faced changing routes as well. All in all, 2011 meant more cost, and oftentimes more waiting, for drivers and riders. And it might not get better this year.
KALW’s transportation reporter Julie Caine brings us an overview of how cuts to federal, state, and local budgets will determine how we do – or don’t – get where we want to go in 2012.
BEN TREFNY: Julie, what’s changed for people who ride public transit in the Bay Area?
JULIE CAINE: The biggest change people here will notice are cuts to the commuter benefit – that’s a stimulus-funded public transportation benefit that recently expired. Basically, this was a program that reimbursed workers for transportation costs, tax-free, and that includes both parking and public transit. Last year, the government subsidized both equally at about $230 a year. This year, the benefit for parking is going up, but the public transit one has dropped by almost half, down to $125.
TREFNY: How will that impact workers in the Bay Area?
CAINE: Well, I met BART commuter Julio Alfaro on his way to work, and asked him how the cut in the public transit benefit would affect him.
JULIO ALFARO: It would hurt a lot. Cutting the subsidy in half with the fact that they're raising rates as well, just you know, takes more money out of your pocket. And where does that money come from? You take it from your entertainment portion, or your food portion, or your housing portion. It's got to come from somewhere.
TREFNY: Julie, he’s talking about how to make up the extra money. Is this a problem for other people?
CAINE: Well, Alfaro’s right that the money does have to come from somewhere. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that most people already spend more on transportation costs than on anything else except for housing.
TREFNY: And what about the difference between subsidies for parking and transit? What are the implications for that?
CAINE: When you subsidize parking, it means more people drive and public transit use goes down. Right now in the Bay Area, those numbers are pretty even: About a third of commuters get to work by car, and another third use public transit. But the changes to the commuter benefit might really affect that balance. Think about it: If you get more money from your employer to park and less money to take the bus, then you might be tempted to drive more. And that could mean more congestion on the roads, and more emissions in the air. The commuter I spoke with, Julio Alfaro had something to say about that.
ALFARO: If they're trying to get people to commute more on public transportation, and less pollution and everything, it's ridiculous that they would encourage people by upping the parking and lowering the public transportation subsidies. It makes no sense. But we are talking about the federal government, and they don't always make a whole lot of sense.
TREFNY: Now Julie, you mentioned BART, but I’d imagine this affects other local transit systems as well.
CAINE: Absolutely, especially agencies like Muni and AC Transit. Muni’s looking at an almost $80 million dollar budget gap in the next two years. And in general, San Francisco’s trying hard to get people to take transit. So this could make it more difficult.
TREFNY: So that’s a national issue. What about state cuts?
CAINE: Last month, Governor Jerry Brown announced a new round of state budget cuts called “trigger” cuts because they were triggered by a lack of revenue. Those are also now in effect. The biggie for transportation was that school bus funding was completely gutted – close to $250 million in cuts. School advocates say that will affect close to a million low-income and special needs students statewide. They’ll have a much harder time getting to school. In the Bay Area, Oakland Unified School District is losing $5 million in state transportation funding. They’re going to use their reserve fund to keep from cutting services. San Francisco’s already been hit hard by state budget cuts; they’re losing about a quarter of their school bus service.
TREFNY: So how will those students get to school?
CAINE: Well, federal law says that school districts have to provide transportation for special needs students, so many districts will be dipping into their reserves to do that. But for general ed students, they’re going to have to get to school however they can.
Governor Brown said these choices are hard, but necessary.
JERRY BROWN: You can't provide money you don't have. You either cut or you tax – there is no third way. There's no alternative. As governor of California, I'm sensitive to what these cuts do to real people, but I'm also aware that over time, California does have to balance its budget, and exercise fiscal discipline.
TREFNY: Julie, before we let you go, give us an update on high-speed rail.
CAINE: Yes, that’s the other big news. A peer review panel appointed by the state just issued a very critical report, basically recommending that the legislature not borrow the money it needs to start building this year. They said that the biggest problem with the plan is that the Rail Authority hasn’t been able to secure any additional money for the project, aside from what’s already been approved.
TREFNY: How much is that?
CAINE: There’s the $9 billion voter-approved bond, and then $3.3 billion in federal grants. The project’s supposed to cost $100 billion. Given that there’s no other money, the panel said that the plan to build the train isn’t financially feasible. Needless to say, the Rail Authority disagrees.
TREFNY: So what happens now?
CAINE: Republican state legislators are considering pushing legislation to block spending the bond. Governor Brown says he still supports the project, so we’ll see what happens with the Republican bill. The Legislature reconvenes today.
[Audio for this story will be available after 5pm]