‘Smart growth’ received a flurry of coverage over the past couple weeks, due largely to an important bill just passed by the state legislature to encourage denser development throughout California. Yet a crucial element of this year’s budget debate remained conspicuously absent from much of this coverage—the proposal to slash public transit funding in 2008-09. Treating transit like an afterthought is nothing new for the state (just last year, for example, the Governor robbed $1.25 billion from public transit coffers). But as a bipartisan consensus begins to gel around addressing climate change through land use decisions, it seems remarkable that perhaps the most essential component of making smart growth work—dependable, affordable and convenient public transit—is getting the short shrift.

There's no question SB 375, written by Sacramento's Darrell Steinberg, represents a big step towards ending California's obsession with sprawl. The bill would encourage the development of regional land use plans directing new development to urban centers and near public transit stations. Transportation funding and reduced environmental review would then be tied to projects adhering to those plans. The strategy could help bring the type of growth our state needs to get people out of their cars and significantly reduce our contribution to climate change.

But for the strategy to work, a crucial element of the effort must be addressed head-on: ensuring adequate state funding for public transit. Without this funding, SB 375 could end up being known for creating a series of plans that work great in theory—but have little real impact.

Smart growth does not operate on dense development alone. Be it for work, fun, or doctor's appointments, people must leave their neighborhood sometimes. Without transit that gets people to and from their jobs quickly, provides the ability to go out at night once and a while, and remains affordable, one of smart growth's main benefits – reducing the miles Californians drive - will be seriously compromised. And with the way budget negotiations are moving in the Capitol, it appears the level of transit necessary for smart growth to truly succeed won't be coming anytime soon.
Governor Schwarzenegger released an August update to his budget proposal last week, proposing a half billion dollar cut to public transit. The proposal would redirect $250 million of gas tax revenue legally intended to go towards transit, and eliminate $317 million recently restored to transit by the Budget Conference Committee. While the details of the final deal won't be revealed until the budget gets signed, the Bee recently reported that whatever happens, both the legislature and Executive appear willing to accept significant transit cuts as part of the solution to the current impasse.

The consequences of likely cuts can already be seen. Sacramento's Regional Transit, for example, recently unveiled a plan to address what they expect to be an $18 million hole in their budget due to this year's state cuts. Their proposal? Cut service throughout the region and substantially raise fares. Despite rapidly increasing ridership, sparked by rising gas prices and a growing awareness of climate change, many of those who just discovered the benefits of public transit will soon be facing higher prices for a lesser product.

Encouraging density over sprawl represents an important front in creating a less car-dependent state. But it's only half the battle. And ultimately, it may end up being the easy half.

Developers, while slow to come around, often end up embracing the idea of ‘smart growth.’ Despite claiming their support involves a real commitment to the principles of sustainability, there's usually another, obvious motive. The densification smart growth requires often means massive upzones in desirable areas, opening up an opportunity for these developers to earn some serious profit. Once housing gets built in these newly dense areas, however, the development community often gets curiously silent when it comes to paying for the transit improvements that should come along with the density.

It's not easy to ensure funding for public transit, particularly when so many other vital services find themselves on the chopping block. But progressives should not give up the fight to obtain enough new revenue to adequately invest in our state's public transit infrastructure and operations, this year and every year. Not to take away a single thing from Steinberg and the passage of SB 375, which should be celebrated by anyone who cares about climate change and livable communities - but the struggle to create a truly sustainable California has just begun.