East County News Service
View archived video from the hearing: https://www.assembly.ca.gov/media-archive.
March 1, 2023 (San Diego) – On Monday, Colin Parent, executive director and general counsel for the nonprofit think tank Circulate San Diego, testified to a joint hearing of the Assembly Transportation and Senate Transportation Committees in the California State Legislature. Parent was invited to speak on a panel of transit stakeholders, to discuss the funding issues facing transit agencies throughout California and how to increase transit ridership. After the COVID-19 pandemic, transit ridership has declined, reducing fare revenues, and forcing transit agencies to consider reducing bus and train schedules.
Circulate San Diego advocates for safe streets, improved transit and sustainable growth. Parent, who also serves as Vice Mayor of La Mesa, stated, “Public transit in California serves a lot of functions. It’s a major component of the state and local efforts to address climate change. Transit is a major employer, with lots of bus drivers, mechanics, and more, with good union jobs. But the most important thing that transit does, is to serve the interests of transit riders,” Parent testified to the Democratic-controlled committee. “And if we are going to live up to our ideals as progressives and as advocates for transit riders, we have an obligation to listen to those transit riders.”
The national nonprofit TransitCenter conducts a periodic survey of current and potential transit riders. That data routinely shows that the top priority of transit riders nation-wide is the frequency of transit service, and the overall speed of transit trips, said Parent, adding that locally, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System conducts a similar survey and found the same results.
“Transit riders say they are concerned with quality service, above other considerations like the availability of parking, or the overall cost of transit fares. This makes perfect sense if you’re putting yourself in the shoes of a low-income transit rider,” Parent continued. “Telling a worker who gets paid by the hour that you’re going to save them save them the cost of a $2.50 fare, is cold comfort, if that fare is for a bus ride that takes two hours. They would be able to earn more money if so much of their day wasn’t eaten up by a burdensome, long bus commute.”
By almost any measure, driving is more expensive than taking transit, he noted. Yet many people choose to drive, despite the higher costs. So the way to attract new transit riders is not to lower fares, which are already substantially lower than the cost of driving, Parent suggests. “Instead, the way to attract more transit riders is to improve the quality of service, so that it is more competitive with the car. That means running buses and trains more frequently, and across more hours in the day. That also means funding bus-only lanes so that the bus is faster and more competitive with driving.”
Circulate San Diego collected a number of these recommendations for how to improve transit service in its recently-published report titled “Fast Bus!”.
“As California transit agencies are facing a looming fiscal cliff, the legislature should be looking at ways to ensure that transit service is maintained, and improved,” Parent testified. “Investing in service can bring back riders, and rebuild transit agencies’ financial sustainability.”
He proposed options for the Legislature to consider for helping transit agencies maintain and improve service.
First, the Legislature provided billions in new capital dollars for transit in last year’s budget. “The legislature should amend that allocation and allow local agencies to use that funding for operations and service. That is the priority for transit riders,” said Parent.
Second, California has some innovating funding mechanisms for transit, including the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program, or AHSC. The AHSC program uses Cap-and-Trade revenue to fund affordable housing developments, if they’re paired with improvements to transit. But the money currently only can be used to fund new transit capital costs. This can make transit agencies resist participating in AHCS applications. They don’t want new transit lines built, if they don’t have any new monies to pay for ongoing operations. “The legislature should amend the AHSC program to allow those funds to pay for transit operations, not just capital. That will allow the program to fund the priorities of transit riders. And it will transform transit agencies from reluctant participates, into enthusiastic ones,” says Parent.
“In summation, I want to invite the legislators here today to prioritize the interests, and preferences of transit riders,” Parent concluded. “Transit riders say that frequency and speed are their priority. Studies show that high quality transit service attracts riders, and revenues. Let’s help transit agencies succeed, by helping transit riders themselves.”