Participated today in the second monthly online chat held by Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley. The questions were supposed to be limited to a discussion of the district's Transit Master Plan proposal. I'm not a big fan of this format since you ask a question and get an answer but you don't get a chance to follow up. Still, it does provide some insight into current thinking at RT, or at least Wiley's thoughts.
I asked two questions.
1. Sacramento, CA: Besides a sales tax hike, what NEW revenue source does RT plan to seek to pay for the expansion?
Wiley's Reply: This is a good question that is being asked by many of our community workshop participants. As part of the TMP process, we have a panel of transit financing experts who are assisting us as we evaluate both traditional and innovative sources of funding. A wide range of funding sources have been presented and reviewed including public grants and subsidies and private revenues such as developer fees and benefit assessment districts. You are correct in assuming that the sales tax is one funding source that is being evaluated, but it is only one of more than a dozen, including gasoline sales taxes, benefit assessments districts, and public-private partnerships. More information will be available on the TMP web site as we complete our technical work. The TMP will contain recommendations on how to fund future services and projects.I found this response encouraging. With the state Legislature likely to raise the sales tax as a means of attempting to balance its budget, I fear that voters will be unlikely to jump at the chance to raise sales taxes still further. With California's screwy law requiring a two-thirds approval for the increase, I'd put the chance of a successful effort somewhere between slim and none. RT is going to need that innovation in financing if it hopes to attain the goals of the TMP.
2. Sacramento, CA: The new Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress plan to craft a jobs stimulus package that includes funding for transit projects that could be under way within 90 days. Are there any elements of the Transit Master Plan that could be started if new federal money were available?
Wiley's Reply: There are several aspects of the Transit Master Plan that could be implemented very quickly without raising operating costs unduly. For example, RT would seek funding for hybrid-electric vehicles for our community bus service division, and for our non-revenue vehicle fleet (Police and maintenance). This would both improve our environmental profile and lower our fuel costs. RT would seek funding for an automated passenger information system, which would tell our riders when the next bus or train was due to arrive. We could also seek funding to enhance the Gold light rail line in order to operate limited stop express trains and to extend the trains that currently turn around at the Sunrise station to the Hazel station. RT could also seek funding for our next major projects, such as the South Line Phase 2 - every year that we can save on construction reduces our cost by 5 percent or more.Some background here: Three weeks before the election, the organization I work with found itself with an opportunity to help write a transit-oriented jobs stimulus bill. What we needed was a list of transit projects that could be offered as examples of what could be done within 90 days after funding. I called Caltrans and chatted with the state official who heads the train program and I chatted with a guy who will remain nameless at RT. Both said they'd get back to me. The RT guy said he'd get back to me and then said it again. Neither ever did. I suppose they don't believe in Santa Claus or free money. While the transit lobby fiddled, the highway lobby submitted lists of billions of dollars in roadway projects that could be started. Is it any wonder that transit only receives 20 percent of the federal transportation funding pie?
The rest of the chat can be read here.