Transit windfall warrants openness

The $131.4 billion state budget signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was cause for satisfaction across the state, as state revenue windfalls virtually eliminated the traditionally painful process of trimming needed programs and services. But Bay Area transit officials were especially pleased, as a huge boon in gasoline tax revenues promised millions more in funding than expected for local transportation agencies.

The surge in revenue is massive, bringing state funding that is four or five times more than expected for most agencies. BART, which was expecting $11 million from the state, instead can now expect $40 million. Caltrain was expecting $1.9 million and will get $6.7 million.

Muni, which was planning on receiving $14 million from the state, instead will receive $51 million. That’s great news for an agency that had to raise fares and cut services due to funding shortfalls last year, and which is struggling with structural imbalances that threaten massive deficits in future years unless it radically changes service levels or alternate funding sources are found.

What is still unclear is how the agencies will be able to spend the money. Due to the byzantine rules of transportation financing, there may be some restrictions on how the officials may use the windfall revenues, and they were immersed in studying the complex requirements to see where they could apply the money.

Early reports from Muni are the agency will look to improve the condition of its vehicles and hire more mechanics or station agents. Judging by the disrepair of many of its buses — and the large numbers of themsitting idle in mechanics’ yards while riders wait in vain for the next bus — that sounds like a good plan.

However, we urge Muni and all public transportation agencies to open up their decision-making process to the general public, by holding public meetings and issuing reports explaining where they plan to spend the newfound cash, and why.

While the total windfall may be a relative drop in the bucket for transit agencies whose budgets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it is only fair that riders who are asked to pony up an extra few dollars a month, or who wait an extra 15 minutes for the bus that takes them to work due to service cuts, have some idea of where a significant chunk of the money will go.

Additionally, the agencies, most of which are suffering budget deficits, should start the public decision-making process with clearly defined goals. That will help focus the discussion, and identify the agency’s philosophy for the riding public. Are the greatest needs in the area of capital improvements — or do more buses and trains need to be purchased? Will the money go toward service improvements, or to workers’ salaries?

At each step of the way, the agencies should have to justify their decisions. After all, the money — and the agencies themselves — belong to the taxpayers.

General OpinionOpinion

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