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Bay Area floats $1 billion ballot measure to fund transit as relief funds dwindle

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(The Center Square) – The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees Bay Area public transit, is floating a 2026 ballot measure that would generate $1 billion per year in revenue for use across the commission’s nine counties. With a $776 million bailout package from California lawmakers for MTC running out in 2026, new funding is required to prevent significant service cuts to the state’s most depended-on public transit systems.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, the largest and most ridden of MTC’s transit agencies, is still seeing ridership at only 42% of pre-pandemic levels, which tracks with San Francisco’s downtown economic activity coming in at a mere 32% of pre-pandemic levels. As MTC members’ ridership fail to recover and state and federal funding are running out, they face two options: cut service, or develop new funding.

MTC is now floating a plan to raise $1 billion to help cover an anticipated $700 million annual shortfall to cover existing operations, noting that managers for its member agencies that the proposed $500 million allocation towards operations is still insufficient.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D–SF, who led the state’s ongoing public transit operations bailout package, endorsed the first option, saying on X, “We were on the verge of massive transit service cuts. We worked hard all year to put together lifeline funds & we’ve now shored up service until 2026. In 2026, we need to go to Bay Area voters with a long-term funding & reform measure.”

However, some public transit experts say agencies should, instead of seeking more funding from taxpayers amid lower ridership, have to either improve service to win back riders, or adjust service to economic realities.

“MTC has extensive crime and reliability problems. Instead of just looking to taxpayers to fund the system that’s failing to attract significant new ridership or even bring back ridership anywhere near pre-pandemic levels, MTC needs to improve the transportation system they have based on the current revenues they’re receiving,” said Steven Greenhut, Western Region Director of the R Street Institute to The Center Square.

While current estimates are unavailable, fare evasion is estimated to have cost BART $25-30 million per year before the pandemic. To receive the state’s public transit bailout funds, BART is required to install new transit gates to deter and limit fare evasion, which would result in a significant increase in system funding, but with ridership at the current level, eliminating fare evasion entirely still does not make up for existing shortfalls.

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