Transit agencies eye ballot 

Muni and BART have been forced to resort to fare increases and service reductions to make ends meet after state officials have pilfered their coffers since 2008 to help balance California’s budget.

Following years of lawmakers taking a total of more than $700 million from funds designated for local transit agencies, state voters will decide in November whether to block the practice in the future.

Dubbed the Local Taxpayer, Public Safety and Transportation Protection Act of 2010, the measure will try to firmly establish that funding for local programs — with an emphasis on transportation systems — cannot be used to balance the state’s general-fund deficits.

“We think this is a great chance to say once and for all that we won’t let Sacramento raid our local funds,” said Josh Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association, one of the sponsors of the initiative.

In 2009, Shaw and the CTA successfully sued the state, preventing it from further accessing transportation funds, although not before $1.3 billion was taken from local authorities to balance the general fund.

Of that total, $179 million came from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, $129 million from BART and $25 million from Caltrain.

As a result, all three agencies have implemented a series of service reductions, with Caltrain considering further cuts later this year to help make up its current $12 million budget shortfall.

“We would not be in the precarious position we are today had the state not taken this money away from us,” Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.

The measure does have its detractors, including the California Professional Firefighters, a statewide advocacy group. Spokesman Carroll Wills said the measure would add further complication to California’s already-bogged-down fiscal process. He also said the initiative has the potential to take away funding for fire districts and educational programs.

Although the initiative is designed to stop California from dipping into local funding pots, Shaw conceded that even if it passes, state lawmakers could find a way to circumvent the new benchmarks.

“There is a long history of the Legislature and governors sidestepping what we believed to be the law,” Shaw said.

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Will Reisman

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