California state budget takes gas sales tax revenues from mass transit

Cuts could hinder a number of projects

News Los Angeles Times August 23, 2007
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Lawmakers forged a budget compromise in Sacramento that will take $1.3 billion of California’s state sales tax on gasoline revenues away from local transportation agencies to balance the general fund budget.

The cuts could put a variety of transit projects in danger, including the Exposition Line light rail from downtown L.A. to the Westside, extending the Orange Line busway from Warner Center to Chatsworth, and building the Gold Line from Pasadena to San Bernardino County, said chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Roger Snoble.

"As far as improving transportation here, it's really a big setback," Snoble said.

He said that if the trend continues, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will have difficulty funding needed road projects, such as widening the 5 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley and near the Orange County line and the 10 through the eastern San Gabriel Valley, and completing the 710 through South Pasadena.

"Expect to spend more time on freeways. And expect to have less transit available," Snoble said.

This is not the first time transportation has lost out in Sacramento.

In the last six years, the governor and state lawmakers have tapped the per-gallon gas tax and the separate sales tax on gasoline to balance the budget. These cuts are apparent to anyone who drives or takes mass transit. For many years, congestion has been growing at a faster rate than road construction.

Transportation officials thought times were changing when voters in November approved infrastructure bonds totaling nearly $20 billion over the next 30 years, which was hailed as a way to ease the state's traffic problems.

Although it was only a fraction of the estimated $200 billion of need across California, said James Ghielmetti, chairman of the California Transportation Commission, it was a start.

Now some local transportation officials accuse state lawmakers of a "shell game"—using the bond money to backfill cuts faced by transit agencies that had been expecting the revenues from the gasoline sales tax.

People "voted for Proposition 1B expecting to have additional projects to improve our transportation system," Snoble said. "That's literally being stolen and used to balance the state budget."

"Essentially, we all got hoodwinked," Snoble added.

The budget uses $1.3 billion from the sales tax on gasoline to pay for spending that is somehow related to transportation. More than $1 billion will be spent to pay off bonds for rail projects that have been built or to repay the state highway program. The remaining money will go to help school districts run school buses and to transport the developmentally disabled.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputy finance director, H.D. Palmer, defended the approach. "These are clearly expenditures that are related to public transportation."

Palmer also said that funding to operate mass transit systems and build transit projects will increase this year, due to the $700 million from the transportation bonds approved by the voters last fall.

But Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) said Democrats had to compromise with Republican lawmakers in order to win passage of the budget. One such compromise was on mass transit funding, Nuñez said.

In tight budget years, recent Govs. Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger have looked to transportation taxes as one way to help close the gap in the state's general fund, which pays for such things as K-12 education, colleges and universities, prisons and health and welfare programs.

But voters in November passed another measure to stop the state from balancing the budget with transportation funds.

So Schwarzenegger and lawmakers switched tactics this year, took money from the sales tax on gasoline and spent it on other programs instead of mass transit.

Brian Taylor, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, said that when faced with potential cuts to prisons, healthcare and schools, cutting road programs often seems the least detrimental, at least in the short term.

"For example, if you're planning on widening a freeway [but] you don't fund it this year," Taylor said, the freeway will still function, "albeit more slowly."

Art Leahy, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, disagrees. “If we don't invest in roads and transit, then congestion is going to become increasingly worse," he said. "And that's going to reduce the economic vitality…and quality of life in Southern California."

"In the long run, transportation is terribly underfunded," Ghielmetti said.

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