The mourners marched around several Oakland and San Francisco BART stations Saturday in a funeral procession. A few acted as pallbearers, carrying homemade flower-draped caskets. Some wore black suits and top hats, others handmade veils — someone even played a sad trombone to express their grief.
The funeral was for public transit, and while the mock ceremony had some lighthearted elements, the organizers were dead serious about what they say is a region-wide crisis affecting millions.
“Now, you might have heard that transit had not been well of late,” a eulogist said over a loudspeaker. “Some have said that the cause of death was the pandemic, or crime, or the unhoused. But this is a misdiagnosis. The cause of death is neglect, the cause of death is abandonment. Public transit is being starved to death by your representatives, and Governor Gavin Newson is prepared to pull the plug.”
The funeral protest was part of a campaign this week by transit advocates who are calling on Gov. Newsom to update his state budget proposal with relief funds for transit.
California faces a $32 billion budget deficit. Last month, Newsom announced a budget proposal that cut $2 billion from statewide transit agencies for the next year. Transit analysts say that if Newsom doesn’t adjust his spending plan by the June 15 midnight deadline to submit the final budget, it will force BART to cut weekend and evening services, and it could lead to station and line closures. AC Transit, the bus system that serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and Caltrain and Muni in San Francisco and the peninsula will also be forced to significantly scale back services.
Any transit shutdowns will likely have a devastating effect on transportation access. About 91,000 people use AC Transit each day while 150,000 people ride BART daily.
During a BART board meeting last December, the system’s leadership said they might have to shut down the Richmond-Millbrae and San Jose-Daly City lines if they do not receive the emergency funds.
Many state and local legislators have called for Newsom to reinstate at least a billion dollars annually for transit until 2028. They have proposed raising money through an additional sales tax on diesel fuel and using cap-and-trade climate funds, among other ideas.
Berkeley would be severely affected by any service cuts. The city’s three BART stations are a critical resource for people traveling to and from all edges of the Bay Area.
Reducing train and bus services will likely lead to an increase in car use, causing more highway gridlock and pollution, transit advocates said.
Why has revenue for transit agencies collapsed?
According to the California Transit Association, people stopped taking buses and trains during the pandemic, leading to a collapse in revenue and a deficit of about $6 billion over the next five years. In the Bay Area, BART made about $500 million a year in rider revenue pre-pandemic, but weekday ridership has plummeted, at times reaching as low as 30% of pre-pandemic levels.
“We know that those hurt most by the pandemic-induced service reductions are low-income people and people of color, the very Californians already suffering disproportionately from the health and economic impacts of the crisis,” Michael Pimentel, the executive director of the California Transit Association, wrote in an editorial published by CalMatters.
BART General Manager Bob Powers and Janice Li, the agency’s board president, said in a statement last week that the potential closure of whole stations or train lines will affect poor people the most.
“Sixty-seven percent of BART riders identify as non-white. Forty-four percent do not have a vehicle. Thirty-one percent have an income of $50,000 or lower. Seven percent are disabled,” they said.
About $11 billion in emergency funds through three federal COVID relief bills helped agencies like BART and AC Transit stave off service cuts over the past three years, but the money is expected to run out by 2025.
Members of Congress, including Berkeley’s Barbara Lee, are also asking Newsom to find money to fund transit. “Without additional state funding to address these budget shortfalls, many agencies may soon be forced to implement drastic service cuts while laying off workers and/or increasing fares,” the representatives wrote in a June 2 letter to Newsom. “Such actions would risk sending these agencies into a negative spiral of reduced ridership and revenue, requiring further service cuts and still deeper ridership losses.”
Several local elected officials attended the mock funeral Saturday to show their support for saving transit.
“We need fewer people driving, not more.” AC Transit Director Jovanka Beckles said in front of BART’s headquarters Saturday.
State Senator Scott Weiner said at the rally’s San Francisco stop that the Bay Area has “world-class public transportation” and that people should not take it for granted.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to have BART running on the weekends. We can’t let this happen,” he said.
The funeral protest was organized by former Twitch software engineer Cyrus Hall with help from local transit advocates. WalkSF Board member Lian Chicako Chang designed the cardboard trains and was assisted by other advocates, including Traffic Violence Rapid Response’s Bryan Culbertson. Culbertson said that most people he talked to on the streets Saturday were surprised about the budget cuts and could not believe any transit agency as important as BART, AC Transit, or MUNI would cut services.
Local activists say they plan to distribute flyers with information about the budget and talk to people at BART stations this week.