Bay Area public transit operators have complained bitterly that they've had to raise fares and cut service for two years, in part because state lawmakers kept taking transit money to address state budget woes.
Now, transit leaders say they worry about a state budget bill that would eliminate the state sales tax on gasoline — a longtime source of transit money — in favor of an increase in the per-gallon excise tax on gasoline.
Consumers would pay no more at the pump, but transit agencies would end up with less money.
The bill, which the Assembly approved Monday and sent on to the Senate, also would give local governments the authority to make up any revenue losses by seeking voter approval for a local per-gallon fee on gasoline.
Officials at BART, AC Transit, County Connection and the California Transit Association, a statewide group, are cool toward the bill — and a similar Senate measure being considered during a special Legislative budget session.
"It's fundamentally wrong for the state to take it out on transit riders because state lawmakers can't solve their budget mess," said Joel Keller, a BART board member.
"Now, because the Legislature doesn't have the guts to raise taxes or cut costs, they're going to dump it on local government boards to seek higher taxes at the pump. Once again, the Legislature isn't doing its job."
Democrats in the Legislature say they are trying to help bus, train and ferry operators while the state struggles to cope with a projected $20 billion budget deficit threatening many services.
"We're trying to provide transit operators with a more stable source of funding, and empower them to raise fees locally," said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
"We know public transit is hurting, and we're trying to get them more money ... more than the governor has proposed," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord. "But this is a difficult time."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month proposed the tax swap that would end the sales tax on gasoline, which transit agencies relied upon to help run their buses and trains.
The governor stopped there, offering no other state help to offset the losses to transit operators.
The Assembly bill would return $400 million in disputed state funds to public transit agencies to help get through the recession.
The measure also would generate $118 million a year extra for public transit operators by giving them more of the state revenues from the state diesel fuel tax, according to a summary of the bill.
The California Transit Association believes the bill falls short of providing state support for public transit because it fails to return the total $3.6 billion that the state has raided in transit funds the past three years, said Jeff Wagner, an association spokesman.
"We think they should give the money back," Wagner said, "but we are appreciative that some legislators are trying to provide relief for the hardships that public transit operators face."
Rick Ramacier, general manager of the County Connection bus system in Contra Costa County, said he is very leery of wiping out the sales tax on gasoline and telling local agencies to go to local voters with ballot measures for a per-gallon fee on gasoline.
"We think it's a mistake," Ramacier said. "We believe the permanent reduction of the sales tax on gasoline would put us in a position of having to consider cutting service or raise fares again."
While transit agencies would have the option to go to voters for relief, the elections would be politically risky, Ramacier said.
There also may be legal questions on whether the local gas fees would be subject to a simple majority or a two-thirds majority approval by voters, transit experts said.
Chris Peeples, the AC Transit board vice president, said he hasn't seen the wording of the Assembly transit bill, but he remains worried the state won't do enough.
"Public transit operators need stable funding," he said, "not to have their money taken away by the state whenever the economy is bad."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Read the Capricious Commuter blog at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation.