Bay Area lawmakers urge state for more transit funding to avoid ‘irreversible’ service harm

A BART train runs on railway tracks next to a pool of water on Jan. 5 in Daly City, Calif.

A BART train runs on railway tracks next to a pool of water on Jan. 5 in Daly City, Calif.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

A group of Bay Area and Los Angeles lawmakers warned state legislative leaders Thursday of a “long-term, possibly irreversible” downfall for BART, Caltrain and the region’s transit agencies if California doesn’t step in to fund their operations.

In California, public transit services are largely funded locally or regionally. However, the issue is becoming one of this year’s biggest legislative battles as transit agencies project drastic service cuts after they run out of the billions in federal funds that have propped up operations during the pandemic.

The Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies face tough headwinds in securing new sources of money.

Nearly three years since the start of the pandemic, the Bay Area has had one of the nation’s slowest transit ridership recoveries, severely hampering agencies such as BART that rely on fare revenues.

California, meanwhile, is grappling with a $22 billion budget deficit, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initial budget proposal included a $2 billion cut for transit capital projects with no funding for operations. The federal government gave Bay Area transit agencies a historic $4.5 billion in relief funds but with a split Congress is unlikely to provide more.

The letter signed by San Francisco State Sen. Scott Wiener, Assembly member Matt Haney and nine other lawmakers pushed back on Newsom’s January proposal.

“The state budget must provide sorely needed transit funding to help agencies avoid these shortfalls as federal emergency funding ends and as agencies’ fare revenue recovers,” the lawmakers wrote.

Transit agencies specifically are lobbying the state to include “bridge funding” for operations in the state budget that would extend their fiscal cliffs to give them more time to ask Bay Area voters to approve a regional mega measure that funds transit long-term, potentially in 2026.

The cost of that bridge funding is unclear. It’s also unclear how much support there is among the governor and state lawmakers to bail out transit agencies that are mostly concentrated in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Bay Area legislators said in their letter that absent new funding, severe reductions in transit service would harm transit’s most loyal riders and clog freeways with congestion.

BART, for example, projects a worst-case scenario where it would have to cut two of its five lines and close on Saturdays to address its fiscal cliff in 2025, without a subsidy from the state or local taxpayers. Such deep service cuts would place BART in what’s referred to as a transit death spiral, where such cuts make transit less convenient, prompting further drops in ridership, resulting in cascading revenue loss and service cuts until a network collapses.

“We understand the state is projecting a budget shortfall and that difficult choices must be made,” the legislators’ letter reads. “However, allowing the state’s transit systems to unravel would have long-term, possibly irreversible, devastating impacts on California’s transportation system and climate goals.”

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ByRicardoCano