Times Backs Gutting of Transit Operations Proposition, Wants Transit Funded by Excise Tax on Gasoline

2_16_10_union.jpgI always thought this picture on Union Station makes it look as though the station is made of gold. Photo: Christopher Chan/Flickr

It’s taken me the better part of a day to figure out how best to write about this Sunday’s Editorial in the Times concerning the Governor’s plan to end the transit subsidy that is part of the gas tax and cut the gas tax.  After spending the bulk of the column attacking the "gimmicks" that created the state transit subsidy and painting transit advocates as disingenuous for decrying the raids on the subsidy; the Times ends with a call for more funding for transit projects.  Regardless of what one thinks of the Times’ coverage of issues, they are the "paper of record" for the second most populous city in America, and largest in the state of California so the influence of its editorial page shouldn’t be discounted.

If you haven’t done so already, take a moment to read the editorial, then click through to my analysis. 

The first time I read this editorial, I was annoyed.  I thought the Times was actually blaming transit advocates for the current problem that has led the Governor to propose permanently ending the state transit subsidy, despite the overwhelming support the subsidy has received at the ballot box in 2002 and 2006.  It even praised Governor Davis for immediately going around the voter’s wishes by declaring an "emergency" the first chance he got and claimed that Schwarzenegger’s plan to eliminate the transit subsidy proposition as a step in the right direction.

But the Times closes with a plea for more transit funding, and even states that the plan being proposed by the Democratic leaders in the legislature because it doesn’t provide a gas tax cut, and instead uses the preserved funding to restore part of the transit subsidy.  How do we balance these competing messages?

The key paragraph is this one:

To understand how they have been played, California drivers have to
better understand what they pay at the pump, and why. Start with the
state excise tax, a flat per-gallon fee of 18 cents, which is
constitutionally required to be used on transportation projects and
maintenance. It’s a type of road user fee, and contrary to assertions
from across the political spectrum, this money cannot be, and has not
been, "raided" or even borrowed for use on non-transportation programs.
Nor has the separate 18.4-cent federal excise tax, which pays for the
federal portion of repair and construction of highways, roads and
bridges.

In other words, the problem isn’t that the state is subsidizing transit; the problem is that the mechanism that pays for the transit subsidy, and other government projects, is so complicated that voters can’t understand it.  One would think that the answer would be a gas tax that goes directly towards transit, correct?  Not a percent of the current tax, but a simple statement that just says, for example, "ten cents of every dollar spent on gasoline in California should go towards funding transit operations."

The Times closes with a plea for better transit funding, despite what it views as a political reality that will make it much harder for that to happen, after it spent much of the editorial mocking the claims of transit advocates that the Governor is proposing a raid on transit funds.  While I don’t approve of their style, the substance of such a large paper asking for better transit funding shouldn’t be ignored.

  • If you’ve bothered to pickup a copy of the Times, you’ll notice that half of it is car ads. Once I realized this, so much of what happens at newspapers regarding transportation reporting made a lot of sense. The Times doesn’t exit to make our world a better place – it exists to get suburban eyeballs onto car and real estate ads.

  • ds

    The article is just lambasting the transit advocates for having the gall to complain about their funds being raided, when the truth is that they got those funds in the first place by raiding the general fund.

    They passed prop 42 by stoking voter confusion between the gasoline excise tax (which has always gone to transportation and has never been raided) and the general sales tax that applies to sales of most goods including gasoline, which has until recently always gone to the state general fund.

    The problem with the excise tax is that it’s calculated per gallon, not per dollar like the sales tax, so revenue does not go up with inflation. And with the 2/3 vote requirement, Republicans will be able block any increase in the excise tax for the foreseeable future.

  • I think the Times blew it. They wasted an editorial on an arcane argument and never dealt with the central question of what transportation vision should we embrace and how do we achieve it. Quibbling about funding mechanisms is petty and pointless. And left un-noted is that transit funds alone have been diverted while highway funds are untouched, a gross inequity that our alleged allies in 95814 have turned a blind eye to.

    “In the late 1990s, lawmakers launched a supposedly limited, five-year project to divert sales taxes paid at the gas pump away from the general fund and for use solely on transportation.” This evidently is a reference to the Traffic Congestion Relief Program, which was a capital projects program. And it is misleading to speak of “the end of the diversion period neared” since these projects never received anywhere near the funding promised due to the shifts etc., leaving agencies committed to doing projects without the funding that was promised. That is what the 2006 measure was meant to prevent.

    http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis_2007/transportation/tran_07_2660_anl07.aspx#Addressing%20Issues%20in%20the%20Traffic%20Congestion%20Relief%20Program%20(TCRP)

    And given a likely measure on the Nov. ballot on transit funding protection, certainly a dialogue on the topic is long overdue. Yet the Times in its haphazard manner never even mentions the prospective measure. Frankly the Times waves its arms but offer nothing but DOA solutions. I reiterate–this editorial was a waste of space. Thanks for nothing, L.A. Times.

    http://la.streetsblog.org/2010/01/15/so-ca-ta-wants-your-help-gathering-signatures-to-get-transit-protections-on-the-ballot/

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