California's struggling transit agencies approaching a financial cliff

Due to continuing low ridership, the finances for mass transit systems across the state are so bad, select Senate committees are looking into how, if, and when we can keep them from falling of a financial cliff. 

The Senate Select Committee on Bay Area Public Transit held a hearing on Tuesday looking for ways to overcome the many barriers to mass transit recovery. "Bay Area transit agencies face a $2.5 billion operating shortfall over the next five years. They'll be forced to enact massive service cuts that could induce a death spiral," said Sen. Scott Weiner, (D) San Francisco, the committee chairman. 

Last week, the governor's updated budget proposal left in place $2 billion in cuts to public transit. "We cannot and we will not allow our public transportation systems to collapse by inaction on the part of the state of California," said Senator Wiener. 

It's not just buses and it's not just rail. It is literally all forms of public transit, even some private transit, having real problems because not enough people are going back to their offices. "Today there are 150,000 fewer people in downtown San Francisco each weekday as compared to pre-pandemic. The amount of available office space for lease in downtown San Francisco is equal to 20 Salesforce Towers," said Golden Gate Transit General Manager Denis Mulligan. 


Even now, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, SamTrans is down 70% from pre-pandemic days, VTA down 24%, BART is down 60%, AC Transit down 60%, Muni down 59%, SF Bay Ferry down 56%, Golden Gate Transit down 38% and Caltrain down 35%. 

"Our one time federal relief funds are running out and parking fines and fees are essentially flat," said Muni’s Kate Breen.

Hmed Abdulmagid takes the AC Transit and BART every day to commute to and from his job. He wears a mask the whole way with concerns about flu or Covid; one reason many don't ride. "Get off two hours early just to take the bus in order to get on time to get me to the BART station and from the BART station take another transit to take me to the factory where I work at the moment," said Abdulmagid.

Fear also plays a role. Andre Alporter is a regular BART rider and sees caution in the riders. "A lot of people, always looking behind themselves hoping that they can get home safely," said Alporter. He says he prefers not ride BART at night due to uncleanliness that also scares riders off. "People sleeping on it, carrying their personal belongings, but overall, during the day, it's pretty safe for me," said Alporter.

One plan, float another new transit tax and let voters decide the Bay Area transit's fate.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this report misidentified MTC and had an incorrect statistic about VTA's ridership. Corrections have been made.