Is Orange County going to be able to keep up with growing demand for bus service?
Transportation leaders are warning about a major funding gap to keep pace with that growth – unless the state Legislature or Congress approves new ongoing money to pay for bus operations.
Bay Area officials are calling it the “transit fiscal cliff.” And it’s being felt in OC as well – though less severely, officials say.
During the pandemic, Congress approved a massive infusion of funding for public transportation systems across the nation.
But that’s ending. And state funding for transit infrastructure is being cut by a third of what was promised, from $2 billion per year to an average of $666 million per year across California, according to figures provided by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA).
“We can buy all the zero emission buses we want. But if we don’t have money to operate them…then that doesn’t matter,” said Darrell Johnson, OCTA’s CEO, in an interview with Voice of OC.
It’s relatively easy to get state funding to buy infrastructure – like a new bus, building or changing a station, he said.
But “it is extremely difficult to get state or federal money for bus operations or transit operations,” Johnson said.
“That is a very, very difficult space.”
If the funding issue isn’t fixed, it hinders the ability to expand bus service to accommodate future growth, said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter.
“We’re trying to encourage more people to get on public transit as our freeways and our streets get more crowded. And we want to be able to meet that demand as the county grows and as public transit grows,” Carpenter said in an interview.
“We need to make sure that there’s a steady source of funding for operations…so we can meet that demand in the future.”
It’s not the only service looking at impacts as pandemic-era federal funding comes to an end.
Food pantry officials throughout the state are expecting a massive increase in food demand after additional benefits – stemming from COVID funding – are drying up at the end of march.
Like the public transportation field, local OC food bank directors warn there’s a “food cliff” coming.
[Read: Millions of Californians Are About to Lose COVID Food Benefits; OC Braces for ‘Food Cliff’]
OCTA officials say there currently are no plans to cut service.
“But we do share the long-term concern with other transit agencies and expect to begin more detailed discussion [this] year, at which time a more detailed and reliable timetable about potential effects should begin to emerge,” said Carpenter.
When the state projected a $97 billion surplus last summer, billions went to transportation.
But “not one dollar went to [transit] operations,” Johnson said.
A local transportation advocate says it’s time to look at local measures to fund bus operations, calling public bus service a crucial safety net for people who can’t get around by car.
“If you think about the bus as a safety net, then we at least [should] start identifying, okay what do we need to do on our end?” said Kris Fortin, who advocates for safe and accessible transportation as director of Santa Ana Active Streets.
He wonders if it’s time to look at reforming OC’s transportation sales tax – known as Measure M2 or OC Go – so that part of it funds public transit operations, as it does in LA County.
“Why can’t we actually have that on the table to reform it to support our transit system? instead of [only] asking the feds [and state]?” Fortin asked.
As for OCTA’s ask, Johnson said he wasn’t prepared to go public with the dollar amount local officials are seeking from state or federal officials.
But, he said, the funding can’t just be a one or two-year fix.
“It needs to be sustainable and it needs to be long-term,” Johnson said.
“We need to be able to tell the public: If you choose to ride transit … it’s not sort of re-thought every 12 months as part of a budgetary process.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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