Federal transportation cuts could derail local transit plans

Proposed cuts to federal transportation across the country would undoubtedly adversely affect Bay Area local services such as Caltrain, BART and AC Transit.

Even though the U.S. House of Representatives is working on a bill that could cut up to 34 percent of federal funding to public transportation, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California is countering with a bill that would maintain current funding for the next two years.

Last week, both the House and Senate passed an extension on the existing Surface Transportation Authorization bill which would maintain current funding until the end of March 2012.

But this is not a long-term fix, especially for BART, which is waiting for federal funding to renew its outdated fleet of cars which dates back to 1972, said BART Board of Directors President Bob Franklin.

“BART is scheduled to receive $851 million by a federal formula for new cars, which could be cut by 34 percent (if the House bill is passed),” Franklin said. “So, if we are short by a couple hundred million dollars, it would mean the cars that we have since 1972 would be forced to run, which are less reliable.”

He added that BART currently runs its trains at a 95 percent on-time rate, but that the approval of these proposed cuts would increase the likelihood for delays and more expensive fares.

AC Transit commuters may experience more bus delays if the agency receives a cut from its $322.6 million budget for the 2011 fiscal year, of which federal funding accounts for 10 percent, according to Clarence Johnson, spokesperson for AC Transit.

From these proposed cuts, Caltrain would also expect similar service deficits.

In the next three to five years, Caltrain is poised to replace up to 100 passenger cars that would cost about $450 million, but that depends heavily on federal funding, according to Caltrain spokesperson Christine Dunn.

With an up to 34 percent federal funding reduction, Caltrain would have to defer the replacement of up to 30 vehicles, which, like BART, would require the continued use of old cars and result in longer trip times and even fewer trains on the tracks, Dunn said.

Even though these federal cuts imply longer commute times, Justin Harclerode, communications director for the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said these cuts are in response to continued federal overspending.

“Funding levels for these (services) have not been sustainable,” Harclerode said. “We have been spending much more than we have been collecting in user fees, and this has necessitated a cut in funding.”

The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is currently preparing the bill and plans to have it completed by March 2012.