Big transit funding updates – federal, state, regional

There are big things in the works for transit funding at the federal, state and regional level that have implications for the Peninsula Corridor and Bay Area region.  This is important for ambitious plans to expand transit, and to address the deep risks of slow ridership recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. 

Some useful information about the funding landscape can be found in the draft legislative platform being presented at the Policy Advisory Council for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Your blogger also serves on that body.

Federal funding – trains, buses, grade separations

Congress has passed a major infrastructure bill with over $600 Billion in transportation capital funding. MTC estimates that this would result in about $4.5 billion in guaranteed funding to be distributed by MTC, and approximately $140 billion in competitive grant funding (of which about $40 billion would be subject to annual appropriation.)

Of note for the Caltrain corridor, there are pots of funding that can be used for grade separations, with $10 billion ($5B up front, $5B annual appropriations) in Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI); and $4.5 billion in the Railroad Crossing Elimination Program ($3 billion up front, $2.5 billion annual appropriations).  

There are also pots of funding that can be used for train cars, zero emissions buses and ferries.   And there are highway funds that can be used flexibly for congestion pricing.

With this funding, there is likely to be a rush to fund programs that have been in the works – full electrification of Caltrain, the downtown extension of the Caltrain tracks to the Salesforce Transbay terminal, grade separations, and more. 

Meanwhile, congress is continuing to debate the “Build Back Better” act, that includes about $10 billion in transit operations funding focusing on access to affordable housing and the enhancement of mobility for low-income residents. 

State budget, including service and fares

Last year, public transportation missed out on an opportunity to receive funding from the State of California $100 billion surplus, due to an unresolved dispute over High Speed Rail.   The money reverted to the state’s General Fund, and the conversation is starting again this fall for the 2022 budget.  MTC will be collating the region’s transit funding needs to advocate to the legislature, including needs for operating funding.   

One area where funding may be especially helpful is standardizing regional transit fares.  The recent regional fare study showed that standardizing the fares of BART, Caltrain, regional buses and ferries could adding on the order of 70,000 new riders, on the scale of another pre-Covid Caltrain, and reduce driving miles by about 4 times Caltrain electrification.  Because of the importance of regrowing transit ridership, this might be especially helpful to fund.  

Regional funding – MTC considers regional funding measure

On December 10, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will convene a listening session to engage with the public regarding the potential for a regional revenue ballot measure in 2024.   A regional funding measure could be flexible and be used to fund longstanding needs for operating funding, to provide frequent and well-integrated service, maintenance funding.  

Historically, it has been easier to fund capital improvements than operations and maintenance, resulting in business and trains that don’t come often enough, are insufficiently coordinated and reliable.  

An important topic for the regional conversation will be whether to focus on transportation, or to simultaneously pursue funding for housing and climate resilience.

Slow pandemic recovery 

Operations funding will be especially important given the slow pace of ridership recovery. The Bay Area is lagging the rest of the country in return to office work, and business surveys indicate that there will be a longlasting trend toward hybrid remote work.

When federal funding runs out, major agencies are projecting large annual deficits, with a wide range of uncertainty regarding the pace of ridership recovery. SFMTA is projecting  $79-$136 annual deficits starting FY 2024; Caltrain is projecting $20-$60m annual deficits as early as FY2024, and BART is projecting $100-$250m annual deficits starting in 2024.

In the coming months and the coming year, there will be important opportunities to pay attention and speak up to secure funding to maintain and improve service, while taking advantage of funding to build out a zero-emissions public transportation network.