Transit services could face major cuts in federal funding

  • A SMART train passes through San Rafael on Friday, November 12, 2021 (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

  • SAN FRANCISCO CA – NOVEMBER 12: Traffic is seen over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco north to the Marin Headlands in San Francisco, California on Friday, November 12, 2021. The tarps on the lower left of the frame are for workers painting the viaduct of the southern approach. (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

  • A Golden Gate Transit bus leaves the San Rafael Transit Center on Friday, March 12, 2021 (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

  • Looking northeast, Highway 101 near Interchange 580 is seen in San Rafael on Friday, November 12, 2021. (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

  • SAN RAFAEL CA – NOVEMBER 12: A pedestrian / bike path near the SMART railroad tracks in San Rafael, Calif. On Friday, November 12, 2021. T (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

  • A seaplane flies over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on Friday, November 12, 2021 (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

Marin County transit agencies could face service and staff cuts after a decision by the Biden administration this week made California ineligible for billions of dollars in transportation funding.

The decision stems from a multi-year dispute between the federal government and California over changes to the state’s retirement system in 2013 that reduced benefits for employees overall.

The Labor Ministry determined that the 2013 pension reforms violated federal law because they were passed by law rather than through collective bargaining with unions. The ministry said the law weakens the ability of public employees to negotiate their benefits and pay in violation of the Urban Transportation Act 1964, resulting in the withholding of federal public transit subsidies until they are corrected.

As a result, the federal government is demanding that California forgo $ 2.5 billion in stimulus funds intended to support transit service in the state. California transit providers are also ineligible for the nearly $ 9.5 billion earmarked for state transit programs as part of the $ 1,000 billion infrastructure package passed by Congress. earlier this month.

Farhad Mansourian, the former managing director of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, called the federal government’s move a blow.

“The immediate crisis is that it also affects all the operations money that all the transport agencies receive,” Mansourian said. “They gave us federal money to maintain the same level of service and not fire anyone.”

Marine transit providers now stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act stimulus funds used to maintain bus, ferry and train service during the financial strains of the pandemic.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which provides bus and ferry services between Marin and San Francisco, says it stands to lose nearly $ 44 million in stimulus funds. The loss would result in a shortfall of $ 24 million in its current budget, which would impact its ability to fund its bus and ferry service, according to Denis Mulligan, district general manager.

The district received approximately $ 102 million in two installments of the American Rescue Plan Act. The first payment of $ 58 million has already been approved by the federal government and is not affected by the latest decision, but the second payment of $ 44 million has not been approved, according to Mulligan. The district planned to use $ 82 million of the funds to cover the shortfall in its current budget.

Asked if the loss of those funds could lead to cuts in service and staff, Bridge District spokesperson Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz said the move could “create problems on how we are funding our services in the future “.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, known as SMART, is at risk of losing $ 2.3 million in grants to build its bike and pedestrian path, $ 3 million in maintenance grants and about 7.5 million dollars. dollars in funding for the American Rescue Plan Act, according to SMART spokesperson Matt Stevens.

Mansourian said SMART should be exempt from the federal government’s decision. Bargaining agreements reached by the agency and its three employee unions were not created until 2017, when rail service became operational – four years after the passage of the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, known as PEPRA.

“PEPRA didn’t ask us to change existing labor agreements because we didn’t have any at the time,” Mansourian said.

Marin Transit stands to lose the $ 6.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds it expected, as well as a separate $ 1.3 million grant to repair bus stations, said Nancy Whelan , executive director of the agency.

Most of the stimulus funds were to be used in the next fiscal year. The agency would likely have to cover the losses using other sources of funding such as its reserves, Whelan said.

“We would work very hard not to make service cuts specific to this lack of availability of funds,” said Whelan.

Whelan said the agency will continue to seek federal grants in the hopes that the state and federal governments resolve the issue soon.

“You could lose the competitive edge because of our location in California,” she said.

Senior state officials are urging the Biden administration to reverse its decision.

In a letter this week to US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla said the decision “will put billions of dollars in transit subsidies, as well as continued emission reductions, for the better. California in danger ”.

In addition, the department’s decision was taken immediately after Congress passed a major COVID economic relief and infrastructure law to fund billions of dollars in new transit subsidies, “the letter said. “We have serious concerns about such a determination which places California transit agencies and millions of Californians at such a disadvantage.”

In a separate letter to Walsh, Gov. Gavin Newsom challenged the ministry’s position that the state’s pension reforms had an impact on collective bargaining rights. He called their arguments “deeply flawed”.

“Withholding billions of dollars in crucial funding on the basis of nine-year-old state law as California battles the COVID-19 pandemic does great harm and injustice to the people of California,” Newsom wrote.

California is still expected to receive tens of billions of dollars from the $ 1 trillion infrastructure package now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature. Over a five-year period, the state expects to receive $ 25.3 billion for road programs, $ 3.5 billion for water infrastructure, $ 1.5 billion for airports, 4.2 billion billion dollars for bridge replacement and repairs, $ 384 million to expand its electric vehicle charging network and at least $ 100 million to expand broadband service, according to Newsom’s office.

The Bay Area is expected to receive about $ 4.5 billion over the next five years under the current allocation formula, which Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesperson John Goodwin said is an increase of about 50% of federal funding.

The package also includes $ 140 billion in grants that agencies across the country can compete for.

“We are confident with the quality of our projects that the Bay Area will get its fair share of this potential $ 140 billion pie,” Goodwin said.

Local transportation and public works officials are considering funding to move everything from large regional projects to repairs to city and county-owned roads and bridges.

One of the main projects in the Bay Area is the redesign of Highway 37, which faces an increased risk of flooding due to the worsening impacts of sea level rise.

“Highway 37 is kind of a flagship project for protection against sea level rise,” said Anne Richman, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin. “He is one of the first to be truly in the place he is in terms of planning and environmental work. There has already been a lot of work on this corridor to look at options for access and protection of habitat and sea level rise. What is really needed is funding.

Other projects include building more bike and pedestrian lanes, the proposed relocation of the San Rafael transit hub, and improving local transit facilities, Richman said.

The Golden Gate Bridge District wants funding to pay for part of the planned renovation of its $ 650 million seismic bridge, Mulligan said.

“This bill is huge,” Mulligan said. “We haven’t seen something like this for a long time. Many decades.

At the local level, the increased funding could help some projects like local bridge repairs move forward years ahead of schedule, Marin County Director of Public Works Rosemarie Gaglione said.

The funds will go beyond the simple repaving of roads. The package includes funding for broadband expansion, cybersecurity, organic waste recycling and management, groundwater storage, culvert replacement or repair, installation of fish ladders and construction. more charging stations for electric vehicles, according to Gaglione.

“This is a big bill with a lot of opportunity to rebuild the aging infrastructure of our county and our country,” said Gaglione.

Melvin Z. Madore