How to improve California’s public-transit system
A new report offers steps that California policy makers and businesses can take to improve the state’s chronically underfunded public transit system. Author Ethan Elkind, a climate change research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA schools of law, outlines how a well-funded system could address unemployment, high fuel costs and the long commutes that many Californians face.
The report, All Aboard: How California Can Increase Investment in Public Transit, describes the ways in which buses, passenger rail cars, and shuttle vans provide vital benefits to the state. Residents in California’s major metropolitan areas waste as much as two full days per year in traffic, according to a study cited in the report. By contrast, bus and rail lines can reduce each household’s driving by as much as 4,400 miles per year.
Expanding public transit also benefits the environment. California vehicles account for nearly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change; more than 90 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy levels of one or more air pollutants each year.
“A good public transit system can create jobs, reduce commute time and expenses, and encourage smarter development that gives people more mobility and housing options,” Elkind said. “This report offers policy makers innovative ways to finance better transit in their communities.”
The economic recession and California’s budget cuts have severely depleted transit funding. Since 2001, more than $4 billion in state transit funds have been diverted to non-transit services. To overcome those challenges, the report recommends that policy makers expand and capitalize on existing transit revenue schemes; explore measures to lower the voter approval threshold for transit-related taxes, assessments and bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent; and promote land use policies to spark greater use of neighborhood transit services.
The report highlights the significant barriers to public transit financing, including legal hurdles, a perception of public transit as inefficient, a lack of awareness of its economic benefits and land-use policies that fail to spur development near transit stations—development that would increase ridership and the value of transit investments.
As an example of a legal barrier, in 1978, Proposition 13 established a two-thirds voter requirement for all new taxes. “It’s a very high bar and now applies to all government entities when they try to raise revenue through taxes,” Elkind said. “But once in a while, an initiative is put in front of voters to carve out an exception and lower the two-thirds threshold, such as for school funding. Lowering the bar for public transit typically polls very well, so there could be some political movement there.”
Los Angeles has ambitious plans to bolster its transit network, thanks to voter approval of a 2008 sales tax measure to fund rail, bus and other transportation improvements. The metropolis is now seeking an arrangement with the federal government to obtain no- or low-interest loans on future sales tax revenue. The result, according to Elkind, is that the region could build transit projects in 10 years that were originally scheduled to take more than 30 years.
“We’re in a recession, and this type of program serves to stimulate local jobs and capitalize on a slow labor market for construction projects,” Elkind said. Federal legislation, entitled “America Fast Forward,” which would allow Los Angeles and other cities to implement this financing arrangement, is pending in Congress. According to Elkind, the idea is “getting bipartisan support because it would use the power of the federal government to bring down interest costs and allow local governments to make improvements as they see fit.”
Another idea examined in All Aboard: financing regional transit projects by borrowing against future increases in property tax revenue. As private property near public transit increases in value, a portion of the additional property tax revenue could be used to repay the loans.
All Aboard is the eighth in a series of reports on how business leaders and policy makers can address climate change. Each paper results from a workshop discussion that includes representatives from business, academic, legal and policy sectors of the targeted industries. The workshops and reports are sponsored by Bank of America and produced by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE); and UCLA Law’s Environmental Law Center and Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment. CLEE Associate Director Steven Weissman also contributed to the report.
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