Under crystal blue skies and a postcard backdrop of one of the world’s most iconic bridges, heavy hitters from the White House and Capitol Hill continued a victory lap for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill on Monday, touting a $400 million seismic upgrade of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the legislation’s biggest single awards.
But even as Washington promises massive flows of new infrastructure spending for transportation projects across the country, a more urgent question brought on by post-pandemic economic headwinds has surfaced: Is there enough money to keep the country’s trains and buses running?
National leaders, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, offered no commitments at Monday’s event when asked about whether the Biden administration or Congress should help ailing public transit agencies weather a near-term fiscal crisis. Budget shortfalls could threaten BART’s weekend service in the coming years and transit funding is shaping up to be a key battle in Sacramento.
“That is a question we’ve had for the 35 years I have been in Congress. Is it bricks and mortar, or is it operating cost?” said Pelosi in one of her first local appearances since stepping down as Democratic leader. Without the “bricks and mortar,” Pelosi added, “We don’t even have anything to talk about.” She did not say if Congress should back a transit funding package.
Pelosi’s San Francisco district has some of the country’s most financially strapped transit agencies, including BART, Caltrain, and Muni. Daily commuters have ditched the office for remote work, leaving agencies scrambling to make up fare revenues losses that were filled only temporarily by pandemic relief money. Without new taxpayer subsidies, bus and ferry service could be slashed and BART could cancel multiple lines after 2025, according to transit planning documents first reported by the Bay Area News Group.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 23: Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi at a press event near the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in San Francisco, Calif. Officials announced a $400 million federal grant to upgrade and retrofit the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to ensure it can withstand the impacts of a major earthquake. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
At Monday’s event, Buttigieg cited funding for zero-emissions buses as a way to save agencies money on fuel, but he did not offer any support for operations funding that local agencies say is desperately needed.
“A lot of that is going into capital. It’s also going to capital that will save transit agencies on their day-to-day expenses,” he said.
The Golden Gate Bridge funding package is part of a nearly $900 million effort to strengthen the landmark against a major earthquake or natural disaster that has been underway for over two decades. The first three phases of retrofitting have already concluded and the last phase – bolstering the main span of the bridge along with the towers – is expected to wrap up in 2029. The bridge can currently withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, but larger quakes could force closures, or worse, of the transit gateway.
For decades, government agencies have adhered to a standard formula for who funds what when it comes to transit. Washington typically pays much of the cost of mega projects, but provides scant money to keep buses arriving on time and trains pulling into the station. Those costs, instead, are left to state and local governments whose resources don’t stretch as far.
It’s a sore spot for advocates. The disparity in capital and operations funding is getting worse, they say, as transit agencies, encouraged by the infrastructure bill, pursue multi-billion mega projects even as they mull near-term service cuts.
Caltrain is pushing ahead with a $6.7 billion extension into downtown San Francisco despite facing a budget shortfall as soon as next year. In Santa Clara County, the VTA could face trouble paying BART to run trains through San Jose once the downtown extension is complete in the 2030s.
“There’s a lot of transformational investments, but if we don’t sustain basic service were completely undermining these federal investments,” said Ian Griffiths, who heads Seamless Bay Area, a transit advocacy group.
Griffiths said Congress could consider a federal grant matching program that would also encourage increased state funding. “If we are not maintaining basic levels of service why are we funding major capital projects?” he said.
State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco said the federal government “absolutely should step in and provide a lifeline of funding.” But Wiener, who is leading a push in Sacramento for increased transit dollars, said he is not optimistic that the coming years will see a major shift from Congress on public transit. That means local advocates are largely calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to increase state transit funding and setting the stage for a multibillion-dollar Bay Area ballot measure for 2026 or 2028.
“In a Marjorie Taylor Greene-controlled House of Representatives, that reduces my optimism that the federal government is going to step in here,” said Wiener, referring to the hard-right Georgia Republican.