Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sales tax crash

Is VTA going down the same path as the transit agency in Orange County, in which it is planning one massive bus cuts after another?

At the beginning of the year, VTA said that no cuts were planned. A few months later, VTA finally told the board that it needs to raise fares and cut service. Over the summer months, worsening sales tax revenue prompted the board to move up the fare increases from July 2010 to October 2009.

Unfortunately, that may not be the end of it. The Mercury News is reporting that VTA is facing an operating deficit of $98 million over the next year. A combination of fare increases, service cuts, layoffs, reduction in employee benefits, and more are on the table.

The prospect of another bus cuts is a terrible news to those who fought against those proposals last summer. Cuts that were withdrawn by staff due to community oppositions could come back again. Furthermore, many of the routes that received improved service in January 2008 and July 2009 could very much have their frequency reduced to the original level.

It is possible to preserve the bus service by diverting additional operating funds from the 2000 Measure A. Back when that tax was approved in 2000, Measure A funds could be used for operations. In 2003, when VTA was planning a 21% service cuts, transit advocates lobbied VTA to borrow Measure A funds (the tax was supposed to begin in 2006) to preserve service. Presently, about $30 million from Measure A supports bus and light rail operation every year. The irony is that funding from Measure A was supposed to pay for bus expansion. However, since sales taxes have been hit so hard over the years, Measure A funding now supports current bus operation (way below year 2000 level) that otherwise would've been discontinued.

According to the Mercury News, Michael Burns insists that the BART project is not impacted. Guess what? Sales tax reduction for transit operation (1976 sales tax) also applies to the 2000 Measure A to the same degree. If additional Measure A funds were to be diverted for operation, there'll be even less for capital projects.

However, we probably won't be able to get a full financial picture on capital projects since Burns has informally and unilaterally adopted a policy to not talking about it. As long as he doesn't talk about it, he could keep Carl Guardino's myth alive. Even so, VTA is jealous that high speed rail is getting most of the public's attention and a strong funding momentum from the federal government. If these delusionals listened to transit advocates instead, VTA would've joined the high speed rail club with Caltrain Metro East.

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