Transit advocates are hailing an update to the state budget that would include funding for local transit agencies — including BART and AC Transit — over the next three years. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s original state budget draft, released earlier this year, sparked protests among transit agency leaders and advocates because it cut $2 billion for local transit across the state. The cut was part of an attempt by Newsom to balance the state’s $31.5 billion budget deficit. 

In response, leaders of some of the state’s most important transit services, including the East Bay’s AC Transit, BART, and Los Angeles’s MTA, said the expected budget reductions would force them to cut critical services impacting millions of people. BART considered cutting weekend and evening services, and AC Transit considered removing several bus lines. 

Bay Area transit advocates banded together two weeks ago to protest the cuts by marching in a mock funeral procession to mourn the “death” of transit. Across Oakland and San Francisco, pallbearers carried homemade caskets topped with cardboard depictions of sad-faced trains. Several protesters said that Newsom would be “executing” the state’s transit system if he didn’t find a way to provide it with more funds. 

Earlier Thursday, the state Assembly and Senate passed a budget bill that restores the $2 billion for local transit and adds $1.1 billion in flexible funding, well ahead of the legislature’s midnight deadline. The flexible funding will come from cap and trade funds, which are essentially taxes on businesses that emit carbon pollution and must be used on projects that reduce these gasses, including public transit. 

The California Transit Association, a group that advocates for better transit, said on Twitter that the legislature’s draft budget “is a major step forward for [California’s] public transit, benefiting working families and our climate progress.” This organization led the campaign to renew transit funding by organizing more than 60 organizations and mobilizing thousands of people to call state legislators. 

The San Francisco Transit Riders tweeted a statement of thanks to elected officials and transit advocates after passage of the draft budget Thursday. “We have much more to do, but this is an amazing step forward,” the group wrote. 

Trying to avoid a ‘death spiral’ among the state’s transit systems

Over the next two weeks, state Assembly and Senate leaders will negotiate with Gov. Newsom on a final version of the budget, and they could still decide to reduce the amount for transit or cut it entirely. 

One thing is certain: Newsom is highly unlikely to approve a budget that gives transit more than the state legislature approved Thursday, though advocates will continue pushing for more.

On the Senate floor Thursday before the vote, Berkeley’s state Sen. Nancy Skinner said that the restoration of the transit funds would provide “100% flexibility” for capital or operations transit funding to local agencies and help people who depend on transit, including seniors and disabled people. 

“If that funding is not restored, service cuts would be such that we’ve basically abandoned [people who depend on public transit]. So it is a very important part of this budget of which I’m very proud,” Skinner said.

Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, said on the Senate floor Thursday that this “was a difficult budget year,” but he is proud that the final budget passed through the legislature will allow the state to “invest in the future of transit,” and make “meaningful and positive step towards solving the transit operation fiscal cliff.” 

Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that about $400 million of the $1.1 billion in cap and trade funds, if the governor approves the budget, would likely be used for Bay Area transit agencies, including BART. 

Losing transit services would have affected the state’s most vulnerable communities. More than half a million residents do not own a car. And most transit riders make under $35,000 a year, slightly above the state’s poverty threshold. 

Earlier this year, advocates began organizing to pressure the legislature and governor to reverse planned cuts to transit. 

The California Transit Association led the advocacy effort, warning that a cut of state funding could cause a “death spiral” that would effectively “kill” the state’s transit systems. If there are fewer transit options, the thinking goes, more people will stop using transit, leading to decreasing revenues which would force agencies to make more cuts, and so on. 

There’s recent precedent for these fears. The state’s transit agencies suffered severe financial revenue reductions due to low ridership during the three-year COVID pandemic and largely stayed afloat thanks to federal emergency funding. 

Transit advocates told The Oaklandside Thursday that as welcome as the legislature’s restoration of funds is, the budget proposal is still far from what the transit system needs. 

Rebecca Mirvish, who grew up in Los Angeles and was one of the main organizers of the transit funeral procession as part of Telegraph for the People, a UC Berkeley student transit advocacy organization, said legislators and the governor need to consider the long-term effects of poorly funded bus and train systems. 

“Transit is the lifeblood, the circulatory system of the Bay Area, and it’s the only way we will meet our climate goals,” she said.

Jose Fermoso reports on traffic and road safety for our sister site The Oaklandside.