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California and the West

Cut Threatened in U.S. Funds for California Transit

Finances: Senate panel urges change in allocation formula. Feinstein looks to House to stop the proposal, which would hamper the MTA.


WASHINGTON — A Senate panel Thursday recommended that California's share of public transit dollars be cut by $117 million, setting up a test of the state's political clout on Capitol Hill.

Although the action by the Senate Appropriations Committee ultimately may be thwarted in the House, the potential funding cut is especially worrisome to Los Angeles County's financially fragile Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The panel's vote means that the MTA stands to lose about $48 million while struggling to make court-ordered improvements in its crowded bus system.

MTA officials said the loss of funds would have a "devastating" impact on transportation projects in a region "world renowned for its congestion and smog." The federal money is used for such things as buying buses and building rail lines.

The Appropriations Committee measure would cap the amount of transit funds that New York state as well as California could receive. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the panel's transportation subcommittee, said the recommendation is designed to "make sure the two states don't eat up" the federal money available for public transit.

The proposal would prevent any state from receiving more than 12.5% of total transit dollars. Under the current formula, California would receive $794 million in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Under the committee's plan, the state's share would drop to $677 million. That would be less than the $696 million the state is getting this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

While California and New York would lose money, every other state would gain $5.5 million.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) protested the proposal, arguing that it would "essentially take the two states with 50% of the transit use, and restrict them to 25% of the dollars."

But the committee, almost entirely made up of senators who stand to gain from the funding shift, outvoted Feinstein, 27 to 1.

Feinstein predicted that the provision would face a tougher time in the House, where California and New York delegations make up about one-fifth of the body.

Indeed, an aide to Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: "We're not going to start changing [the transportation funding] bill when it's not even a year old."

The bill approved last year set guidelines for spending transportation funds well into the 21st century.

The action Thursday came during the Senate panel's approval of a $49-billion transportation funding bill for fiscal 2000.

Gov. Gray Davis sent a letter objecting to the "discriminatory" shifting of funds.

In Oakland, Steve Heminger, deputy director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the proposal would reduce funding to Bay Area transit agencies by $35 million.

"The concern is that you turn the transit program from a needs-based program that allocates the money to where the transit riders are to a formula program that gives states transit money whether they need it or not," he said. "And that doesn't make any sense at all."

Not all news out of Washington was bad for the MTA. A House panel recommended that the transit agency receive the full $50 million it sought to help pay for completing the Los Angeles subway to North Hollywood.

The House Appropriations transportation subcommittee also recommended that $5 million be provided for developing transit projects for Los Angeles' Eastside and Mid-City district, transit-dependent neighborhoods where long-promised subway extensions have been dropped, and $7 million for bus purchases.

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