Reporting from Los Angeles and Sacramento — Mass transit boosters reacted angrily Wednesday to news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to tap public transportation funds again in an effort to balance California's budget.
The governor's latest plan, a complex gas-tax swap that officials familiar with the plan said would shrink transit funds by as much as $1 billion, could trigger another round of route closures and fare hikes for buses and rail lines across the state, transit advocates said.
It follows a state Supreme Court ruling in June that declared years of administration raids on transit money illegal.
"The governor apparently continues to hate public transportation," said Bart Reed, executive director of the nonprofit Transit Coalition, which advocates for better transportation in Southern California. "Other counties have been cutting service left and right and jacking up fares and L.A. County is sort of the last man standing. Cutting service is the next step."
Erin Speva, transportation advocate for the nonprofit California Public Interest Research Group, said transit riders have already suffered through service reductions and higher fares.
In Orange County, she said, bus routes have been scaled back substantially. Fare hikes were already on the table for Metrolink. In Northern California, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system raised fares and cut its service by 25% during off-peak hours.
"This could have serious implications," Speva said of the Schwarzenegger plan. "It is tying the hands of transit agencies at a time they have serious budget problems. Many could be forced to consider more fare hikes and service cuts."
Marc Littman, spokesman for the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority said his agency in the past has received roughly $50 million to $100 million annually from the state for operations -- funds that could be in jeopardy.
"We're barely treading water" now, Littman said. Projects such as the widening of parts of the 405 or other freeways could be at risk, MTA officials said.
L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA board member, called the governor's proposal "legally questionable," "wrong-headed" and "poor public policy."
"The fact that this scheme is likely to be overturned by the court, as it has in the past, means that the proposal itself has no validity," he added.
The administration declined to comment on the proposal. Schwarzenegger will officially unveil his budget plan to close California's projected $20.7-billion deficit in early January.
Transit advocates, joined by local government groups, announced Wednesday that they are starting to gather signatures for a measure, aimed for the November 2010 ballot, to further wall off their money from Sacramento.
The California Supreme Court seemingly put an end to the transit raids only months ago, ordering the state to repay the more than $3 billion in gasoline sales taxes that it had taken since 2007.
Instead, the Schwarzenegger administration has crafted a plan to again take the funds -- just in a different way.
The governor would eliminate the sales tax on gas and, at the same time, impose a new per-gallon excise tax. Drivers would pay about 5 cents less per gallon at the pump. The excise tax would not be subject to voter-approved spending requirements for public transit.
"It sounds like an end run around our litigation and our court's decision," said Josh Shaw, the lawsuit's plaintiff and executive director of the California Transit Assn.
The governor's proposal would amount to a fundamental restructuring of how California funds transportation. Protections for highway funds would remain in place; those for public transportation would not.
"What you're really doing is funding the roads -- and God knows they need it -- but it's not a balanced transportation program," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area.
Some transit advocates accused the governor -- who has traveled the globe burnishing his environmental credentials, most recently at the climate change summit in Copenhagen last week -- of hypocrisy. Viable mass transit helps curb greenhouse gas emissions by moving people out from behind the wheel.
"It would be a massive step backwards," Shaw said.