SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to cut public transit funding by $1.1 billion would starve transit when ridership is spurred by high gas prices and after the governor committed himself to fight global climate change, advocates of bus, rail and ferry service told state Senate and Assembly budget subcommittees this week.

The budget for the fiscal year that begins in July would shift $627 million from the state's Public Transportation Account to home-to-school transit now paid out of education funds.

Another $340 million out of the account would pay for transit-related bond debt, and

$144 million in transit money would pay to transport clients of the Department of Developmental Services.

Most of that money comes from $617 million in excess "spillover" gasoline sales tax receipts that materialize only in years when gas prices rise faster than other taxable consumer goods. The governor wants to permanently divert such windfalls from public transit.

The Bay Area, with its high transit ridership, would be particularly hard hit by the cuts, said Rebecca Long, a lobbyist for the area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

While only about 10 percent of Bay Area commuters use public transit, the impact of a loss of service could be devastating in key corridors, Long explained to the Assembly subcommittee at a hearing Wednesday.


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"The BART Transbay Tube alone carries the equivalent of an entire deck of the Bay Bridge during commuter hours, and we all know how expensive it is to build one of those," Long said in a wry reference to the $5.6 billion project to replace the bridge's eastern span.

She also cited a University of California, Berkeley, study that "found that without the BART system, the local street and road network would grind to a virtual halt. A trip across the Bay Bridge from Oakland would slow to three hours."

Schwarzenegger administration financial and transit officials defended the cuts as an overdue restructuring of the way public transit is funded in California. The governor's total proposed budget for public transit is $785 million.

Will Kempton, director of the state transit agency, Caltrans, said the proposal would put transit funding "on more stable footing with the revenue growing."

To make up for the loss of traditional transit funding, the governor's budget proposes using $600 million of the

$19.9 billion Proposition 1B transit bond voters approved in November. This proposal also prompted an outcry from transit advocates, who argued that the proposal diminished the

$3.6 billion transit component of the bond measure.

"When voters approved Proposition 1B, they were not thinking about a backfill that would be pulled out the other end," Alan Miller, executive director of the Train Riders Association of California, told a Senate budget subcommittee, which held its own hearing on the proposal Thursday.

The diversion of bond money into the general budget particularly bothered Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington. He urged Assembly members to "frame this as an issue of ethics, that the legislature should not be pulling a bait-and-switch" with voters who passed the transit bond.

Besides harming transit systems and the climate, the budget cuts would diminish local governments' ability to foster "smart" urban development built around transit centers, testified Dan Kysor of the California Council of the Blind.

"Disabled people and seniors are moving to these types of communities so they can get better transportation," he said, because they don't have the option of driving a car.

In the administration's defense, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office noted that the spillover funding was volatile, falling to zero in some years, as well as regularly subject to diversion for budget-balancing purposes by the Legislature. The office recommended that the legislature eliminate the spillover mechanism, but make sure that the same gasoline sales tax revenue is reserved for transit spending.

Legislators on the two panels were sympathetic to the laments of the public transit and environmental advocates who testified against the budget proposals. 

Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, said, "The proposal as it now stands is unacceptable."

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, a Democrat whose district includes large parts of Solano County, said, "Certainly, it's the wrong signal that we should be sending."

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood, said that in addition to providing relief for commuter congestion and mobility for people unable to drive, public transit is a critical to reducing greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

If history is any guide, the governor's proposal may not make it very far in the legislature. A similar proposal to divert spillover money from transit funding was defeated in last year's budget process.

Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6410. Read his Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.