Issue 576 Winter 2024
Image Helping California Transit Survive — and Thrive
On June 3, 2023, advocates held a mock funeral for transit, calling for Governor Newsom to sign a $5.1 billion subsidy to cover operating deficits for California’s public transit systems.
Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Helping California Transit Survive — and Thrive

How SPUR and our coalition won $5.1 billion to avert a transit death spiral.

Urbanist Article

This year’s transit budget win was a huge victory, but the fight to prevent service cuts in coming years remains unfinished.

Large Bay Area transit operators, including BART, Muni, AC Transit, and Caltrain, are among the country’s hardest hit by COVID-19 pandemic-related travel changes. With federal COVID emergency funds coming to an end, these and many other transit agencies are facing a fiscal crisis that would trigger severe service cuts and a spiralling decline.

In response, SPUR initiated and co-led the Sur- vive and Thrive Coalition, which secured $5.1 billion in funding from the state’s 2023–2024 budget. This funding will bring $400 million to the Bay Area for transit operations and will establish an important precedent by making capital funds eligible for tran- sit operations — a huge step, given that the state typically plays a relatively small role in transit opera- tions, leaving transit’s fate to fares and local governments. The coalition also successfully advocated for a statewide task force that will begin to address systemic challenges in the state’s transit funding programs and land use and transportation policies, which are often outdated and counterproductive to the state’s goals for transit.

Victory was far from certain: the state faced a $30 billion-plus budget deficit and many competing needs. Our campaign’s success owes to a large and diverse coalition of civic organizations, led by SPUR, TransForm, Seamless Bay Area, and the Bay Area Council in partnership with the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, KidSafeSF, WalkSF, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Urban Habitat, Public Advocates, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and others.

Concern about transit’s fiscal cliff, coupled with a commitment to climate action, equity, and economic security, fostered an unusual amount of alignment and partnership with public agencies. The coalition constructed a strategy that capitalized on our individual strengths and built a “network of networks.” Together, coalition members and empowered residents garnered political and public support for transit funding and reforms.

As a result of our advocacy, the Bay Area’s fiscal cliff has been deferred, but the work is not finished. Of the $5.1 billion dollars made available, only $400 million will go to transit operations in the Bay Area, leaving a significant operating deficit.

SPUR will continue to work to secure funding for transit, while seeking to address and correct systemic inequities in the state’s spending and laws, pushing to decarbonize the region’s transportation system at scale, and advocating for land use policies and urban design that enable people to move safely and sustainably.

Laura Tolkoff is SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director and Interim Chief Policy Officer.