Event unites Southern California in its effort to preserve public transportation
ORANGE – More than 400 people concerned about the future of public transportation in California joined together Friday to explore issues surrounding the current transit crisis and offer solutions to protect the millions of impacted riders and industry employees.
The day-long Southern California Transit Forum brought together leaders from government, business, labor unions, academia and the transit-riding public from throughout the state.
Sponsored by the Orange County Transportation Authority, Chapman University, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Teamsters Local 952, the forum provided an opportunity for open dialogue about how agencies are dealing with the lack of funding and what steps can be taken to reverse the trend that’s had devastating effects on public transportation.
“This transit forum is a significant step in bringing together all the stakeholders who can make a difference in this fight,” said OCTA Chairman Jerry Amante, also the mayor of Tustin. “Not only is our bus service critical to moving people but there are thousands of families supported by the transit industry and the jobs it provides.”
Amante joined a long list of public officials who participated in the event, including OCTA board members Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of Orange and Curt Pringle, mayor of Anaheim and chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and Peter Buffa. Other panelists included Congresswoman Laura Richardson, Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, Assemblyman Jose Solorio and Los Angeles Metro Board Member Richard Katz.
OCTA CEO Will Kempton and Metro CEO Art Leahy headed a distinguished list of business and industry professionals who joined the discussion including Josh Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association; Lucy Dunn, California Transportation Commissioner and CEO of the Orange County Business Council; James Earp, California Transportation Commissioner and executive director of the Alliance for Jobs; Hasan Ikhrata, CEO of the Southern California Association of Governments; Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy of the American Public Transportation Association.
Kempton helped put the crisis into perspective talking about the harsh reality faced by those who rely on OCTA as their primary means of transportation. OCTA has been forced to cut approximately 20 percent of bus service for passengers whose average annual family income is $31,800.
“These are employees in our hospitals, the clerks who bag our groceries, the servers who keep our restaurants running and the hospitality workers who keep tourism thriving in Orange County,” Kempton said. “OCTA buses are a lifeline service for a significant portion of Orange County’s population.
Funding in California has been decimated in the past three years with the state illegally raiding from local agencies more than $3.5 billion intended for public transportation.
“Voters don’t like taxes, believe it or not, but when they do pay taxes, they want to make sure they’re spent right,” said Earp.
With millions of transit riders throughout the state already suffering from higher fares and reduced service, Governor Schwarzenegger’s recently released budget proposal for next year, would take an additional $1.5 billion from public transportation.
Jane Reifer, leader of the Transit Advocates of Orange County, said it was important to highlight the devastating impacts to not only riders, but also to the local economy. She also pointed out the state’s contradictory position on transit.
“Many people at the forum mentioned how ironic it is that the most important tool to solve climate change issues is being dismantled right when it’s most needed,” Reifer said.
Ideas discussed at the forum to improve the current financial crisis included among others allowing local agencies more flexibility with state and federal funding, allowing increased use of federal stimulus dollars for operations rather than capital investment, developing a federal lending and financing program, increasing the gas tax, supporting a ballot initiative to protect transit funding and fighting the state’s attempt to divert dollars.
While opinions differed on the methods to ensure the long-term viability of transit, the message of working cooperatively emerged as clear theme throughout the day.
“We need to work on a non-partisan basis to build consensus to effectuate political change,” said Patrick D. Kelly, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 952.
Kempton echoed those comments: “While we have no choice at this time but to reduce service, it’s our responsibility to speak with a strong and unified voice, letting Sacramento and Washington know we have an unwavering commitment to protecting our passengers and their way of life.”
For those who couldn’t attend the forum in person, the events of the day were streamed live over the Internet and a live Twitter feed allowed for immediate interaction with the public. It’s estimated that 300,000 people were reached through the online presence.
To see a video highlighting the day, go to http://bit.ly/b5vPpo .