Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Public transit advocates make case in state Capitol

By Erik N. Nelson

SACRAMENTO — While there's no shortage of people making rounds at the Capitol asking for more money from the state's cash-strapped treasury, those organized by the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition on Tuesday were unusual.

There's plenty of money designated for their cause. They just want to keep it.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature diverted $1.3 billion from booming gasoline tax receipts from public transportation to other uses to help cover a budget shortfall. This year, the shortfall in the $101.8 billion budget is more than $15 billion, and the proposed transit diversion from the governor's May budget revision is being repeated by nearly the same amount.

"Do everything you can to protect this money," said Carli Paine, the coalition's transportation program director, as she finished a visit with an aide to state Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose. "We know it's a tough year."

It's so tough, in fact, that the advocates' starting point this year is not demanding all of the money that's designated for public transit, but the half that was promised for future years in last year's budget deal.

But this year, the transit advocates think they have a stronger hand, now that $4-per-gallon gasoline seems to have driven historic increases in public-transit ridership. At the same time, bus and ferry systems must pay higher diesel costs to serve Advertisementnew riders.

Sitting on a couch between larger-than-life portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, the state Assembly's new Transportation Committee chairman, Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, could only assure his visitors that he was a friend of public buses, trains and ferries and would fight for their funding.

But don't expect to find that sentiment outside of the "choir," warned the former member of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission and longtime advocate for giving motorists an alternative to the solo car commute.

"Transit is still in the minds of many other people in this building, something that other people are forced to do," DeSaulnier said as several aides nodded.

DeSaulnier's pledge of support, considering his leadership position, was probably the brightest spot during an afternoon of bleak, caveat-laden "tough times" statements from legislative staffers and their elected bosses.

Emily Rusch, a transit advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, or CalPIRG, was forced to make her pitch while squeezed into the tiny lobby of the office of Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys. Her host was not the senator, but a staffer who had recently finished his studies at Stanford University.

"Last year," Rusch began her pitch at her next stop, "I think it's fair to say that the budget was balanced on the back of public transportation." This year, however, just three blocks from the Capitol, Sacramento's light-rail system saw a 43 percent jump in ridership in April.

over the same month last year, Rusch said.

Her host, an aide to Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, was sympathetic.

But while "transportation is a huge issue in our area," said Legislative Director Ryan Flanigan, "his top priority is probably education and public safety."

The chronic practice of diverting transit money presents a "false choice" between things like laying off teachers and giving proper funding to public transportation, said Rusch, who with Paine was accompanied by transit drivers and advocates. False or not, with a $15 billion-plus shortfall needing to be filled, those will remain the types of choices faced by legislators.

An aide to Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, ended his meeting by urging the advocates to get out and campaign for their cause, and put pressure on the governor and legislative leaders. That way, their voices and their comments on the governor's Web site will add to pressure to find new ways of raising revenue. So far, the governor and his fellow Republicans have resisted such efforts.

By 4 p.m., the group was ready to return to the Bay Area on a bus provided by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Standing near the bus, Bob Allen, transportation and housing director for the Oakland-based Urban Habitat Program, summed up the day's effort.

"Our expectations weren't to come in today and achieve a breakthrough," he said, but to drive home the message that transit doesn't have to be pitted against education and social services.

And if the legislators were to ask, the lobbyists' message went, they'd find more of their constituents looking for alternative ways to get to work.

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