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When it comes to transit, the feds give and the state takes away

February 18, 2009 | 12:58 pm

The world of highway and transit funding is, even at the best of times, a strange one. Check out some of these charts from a Caltrans funding workbook. Comprende?

Yet, even by its own standards, the funding picture for mass transit has taken a couple of bizarre turns in the last week.

On the one hand, there's the economic stimulus bill that was signed into law Tuesday by President Obama. The bill provides $30 billion for highway funding and $13.1 billion for mass transit and rail projects across the United States. Transit officials expect some of that money to land in Southern California, although no one is sure exactly what will get funded. That will be up to federal agencies using their "existing formulas."

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Sacramento are still trying to pass a state budget that appears on course to strip transit agencies throughout California of some much-needed money.

Specifically, the budget would not fund something called the "State Transit Assistance Fund," or, as we'll call it, STAF. If that fund dries up — as is expected — agencies throughout California stand to lose millions of dollars in aid that is used to do such things as run buses and trains. The California Transit Assn. estimates that agencies will take a hit of $536 million in monies not being paid in this and the next fiscal year.

And what are they saying about that over at the state's largest transit agency, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority?

"There's nothing good in the budget bill for us," Terry Matsumoto, the MTA's chief financial officer, said late Tuesday.

Here's why: The MTA didn't get $136 million it was expecting to get from STAF in the budget that the Legislature passed in September. On top of that, it appears that the MTA also isn't going to get the $80 million to $90 million it was hoping to get in STAF funds for the coming fiscal year.

All that contributes to a roughly $230-million structural deficit the MTA is facing this year. Traditionally, the agency deals with deficits by raising fares, cutting service or using money set aside for building projects to keep the buses and trains running. The problem this year is that it's unlikely the MTA board of directors will want to raise fares. The half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in November included a provision to delay a scheduled fare increase for all riders in 2009 until next year.

Service cuts, of course, are always controversial, and the MTA is already considering eliminating 160,000 hours of bus service. The bottom line: Even with the federal stimulus bill now signed into law and ridership up, the MTA and other local transit agencies probably face a bleak funding future.

Steve Hymon

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