Maintaining funding for transit is key to healthy state economy 

As Californians, we have forged our state into the world’s eighth-largest economy and a cradle for cutting-edge sciences. We are the nation’s largest generator of manufacturing jobs — far exceeding our closest rival Texas by more than 70 percent. We boast, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the nation’s most venture capital for clean technology.

And yet despite all this, we can’t pay our bills or find the money to invest in critical infrastructure projects. We are the laughing stock of the country.

To his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown has been singularly focused on a compromise: successfully getting the Legislature to cut programs near and dear to our hearts while negotiating for a handful of legislators to allow Californians to vote on tax extensions to balance our state budget through a special June ballot initiative.

The Legislature must allow the tax extensions to be presented to the voters. Then, we must take this tough medicine so that together we will move the state beyond a fiscal crisis that has been limiting our options for the future.

As one of the longest-serving elected officials in the Bay Area, I know from my 20-plus years on the BART board of directors how critically important Brown’s budget proposal will be to Californians and transit. The proposal takes a substantial step toward eliminating the state’s structural deficit. The governor’s plan will provide public transit more secure minimum funding for the first time in many years.

Public transportation is a key economic driver in California — creating jobs, transporting people to work, saving energy and making communities more livable by decreasing highway gridlock, pollution and greenhouse gases. At BART, for example, more than 330,000 riders leave their vehicles. A system that has won national awards has won approval of more than four out of five riders.

According to federal formulas, BART has created more than 250,000 private-sector jobs for residents in the past 10 years through seismic-safety infrastructure, renovation and expansion programs. But over the years, state fiscal crises have siphoned billions of dollars in dedicated funding from transit agencies such as BART, AC Transit, SamTrans and Caltrain. Such crises have threatened BART’s expansion to eventually connect riders to their jobs in Silicon Valley and Bay Area airports.  

To reverse this trend, last year a “gas tax swap” was approved in Sacramento to allow the state to pay down its transportation debt while infusing $350 million into transit agencies, including BART. Brown has signaled his support for the gas tax swap and included it in his June budget initiative.

However, we as public officials have to make tough decisions while not sacrificing performance. As board president, I helped lead efforts to make BART one of the few transit systems in the nation to balance its budget with a surplus. While maintaining 96 percent on-time service, we returned some surplus in fare reductions to 330,000 riders.

While difficult decisions will have to be made, we cannot neglect the environmentally friendly and private-job-creating public transit infrastructure vital to Californians.

In the next several days, I will formally ask that BART urge the Legislature to allow the people of California to decide on Brown’s package and strongly support his proposal.

James Fang has served on the BART board of directors for more than 20 years.

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James Fang

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