UPDATE: As reported by the Transbay Blog the MTC is planning to apply for the Transbay Terminal train box funding to come out of the $8 billion HSR stimulus and not from the general transit stimulus funds. Debate continues over funding the BART to OAK - in addition to the Transbay Blog article (which opposes funding BART to OAK out of stimulus money) see more at Living in the O, TransForm, and the Calitics version of this post. The original post begins here:
Some great news out of the US Department of Transportation:
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today emphasized the administration's long-term commitment to expanding high-speed rail service in "five or six regions" of the country, not just with the $8 billion provided in the economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law last week, but also "in subsequent years a very substantial effort." Meeting with reporters earlier today, LaHood said that for Obama building high-speed rail networks is, "if not his No. 1 priority, certainly at the top of his list. What the president is saying with the $8 billion is this is the start to help begin high-speed rail projects." He added that the administration "is committed to finding the dollars to not only get them started but to finishing them in at least five parts of the country," although he declined to elaborate on where these projects might ultimately be built.
One of my lingering concerns about the Obama Administration has been that they might be tempted to claim victory with the $8 billion in HSR funding added to the stimulus and not follow up on that money, which as we know merely pays for some initial costs. But what Ray LaHood is saying is that in fact, the $8 billion in HSR stimulus really is intended as a signal to America that Obama is truly serious about building HSR.
This couldn't be better news for us in California, where we have long known that at least $15 billion in federal aid, spread out over 10 years, will be needed to build the SF-LA line. Unfortunately the news is tempered by the fact that the Obama Administration's support for HSR did not extend to mass transit as a whole. Here in California the state has decided to zero out the State Transit Assistance account, costing local agencies over $500 million in funding. The federal stimulus isn't nearly enough to make up the difference. And as the San Jose Mercury News reports, that's setting up a situation where HSR may be pit against local transit agencies:
The MTC meeting Wednesday in Oakland could turn contentious, as the current plan calls for allocating $75 million to help build the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, which would serve as the final stopping point for a high-speed rail line and Caltrain, [NOTE: in fact the MTC now plans to get the train box money from the $8 billion HSR stimulus - see update at top of the post] and $70 million to build a BART spur to Oakland International Airport. Those two projects alone would take 43 percent of the $340 million headed to the area in stimulus funds for local transit.
Some want money for those new two projects scrapped or reduced — and redirected to cover the cost of paying for day-to-day transit needs.
But MTC officials counter that building the Transbay Terminal now will save millions of dollars in later costs, and combined with the $8 billion in stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail could accelerate that program. California is a leading candidate to capture much of that money because voters in the fall approved a $10 billion bond measure to begin work on the line, which will someday extend from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.
"Given that California is the only state to pass a bond to build a new high-speed line, we think we might be able to do some double-dipping there," said MTC executive director Steve Heminger. "We are going to spend the stimulus money fast. I can guarantee that."
I support using that money for the Transbay Terminal, although I'm less certain about whether BART to OAK is all that necessary; the AirBART buses work pretty well (I used them on numerous occasions when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, although that was 10 years ago).
But I really hate it when HSR pitted against other forms of transit. I have said it before and I will say it again - HSR and other mass transit need each other to be successful. It should not and must not be an either/or choice. I don't blame the MTC for being stuck in this position - that blame lies in Sacramento and Washington DC. But we transit advocates need to not fall out along modal lines.
I'd like to propose a solution, one that I don't even know is possible under state law but makes a ton of sense to me. The nine-county SF Bay Area region should implement its own gas tax, which will solely be used to fund public transit. I haven't penciled out the numbers so I don't know exactly what the tax amount should be, but it should be indexed to the price of gas, and not a fixed cent number.
This money would initially be used to backfill the loss of STA funds, and allow the federal stimulus money to go to new transit infrastructure such as Transbay Terminal or BART to OAK. Ultimately the STA funds must be restored by a statewide gas tax increase, but it is much more politically possible to implement a gas tax in the Bay Area first than to try and get the Central Valley and the Southern California exurbs to buy into this (they can be brought on board later, once the 2/3 rule is eliminated).
It's very difficult for folks living in the nine counties to evade the tax, with the possible exception of Gilroy residents who might drive to Hollister to fill up. Most folks will simply pay the increase rather than drive far out of their way to get a cheaper gallon of gas.
I'm not sure if this option has been explored by the MTC and the member counties, but it ought to be. It's a sensible solution that would not only help spare transit agencies from "Armageddon" but would itself be a long overdue policy shift that would give a real boost to transit efforts in the SF Bay Area.