Minding Muni, Part II

Written by Susan Vaughan. Posted in News, Politics

Published on March 10, 2010 with 3 Comments

Concerned citizens watch a February 26 meeting
of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
which met to discuss Muni service cuts and fare increases
to close a $12.1 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.
Photos by Luke Thomas 

By Sue Vaughan

March 10, 2010

On Friday, February 26, facing yet another in an ongoing series of deficits, the seven members of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) took drastic action: they decided not to raise the cost of monthly bus passes for seniors, disabled, and youth.  That proposal – to charge $30 for those passes starting on May 1 – would have raised $1 million to help fill the $12.1 million Fiscal Year 2010 budget gap.

The day before, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wields the power of appointment to the SFMTA board, announced the proposal to raise fares for seniors, disabled, and youth would be pulled.  But the momentum was not to be stopped.  Disabled and senior individuals – and groups representing those individuals – organized and turned out by the hundreds for the meeting.

The decision to withdraw that proposal may have allowed a majority of the Board of Directors to quietly vote for something even more drastic: cutting transit service by 10 percent starting May 1.

That’s nearly the equivalent of one month’s worth of bus service, a retired 30-year veteran of the agency pointed out.

Included in their vote was a decision to eliminate free parking for legislative aides and commissioners at the Performing Arts Garage and the Civic Center Garage, charge transaction fees for some services, raise the residential parking permit fee to $96, and create premium monthly passes worth $70 for use of the express buses to and from downtown and for the cable cars.

How did we get here?

It may seem that Progressive Era and New Deal values are in the ascendency with Democratic president and Democrats in the majority in both houses of Congress.  But anti-government forces that have been brewing for decades are winning their fight to destroy government programs that have evolved since the early 1900s.  In 1978, they succeeded in California with the passage of Proposition 13.  This measure was marketed as protection for senior homeowners; however, it also has a clause requiring a two-thirds super majority in the state legislature in order to raise state taxes.  In other words, a minority wields more power than the majority.

In the 1990s, Democrats nationally adopted anti-government values themselves under the ‘Reinvention of Government’ rubric whose goal has been to downsize government and privatize the commons.  And with the passage of California’s Proposition 218, in 1996, a two-thirds majority became applicable to local tax measures dedicated to specific purposes.  As a result, in California, programs from our public education and public parks to our public transportation systems are facing imminent collapse.

Local impact

Last April, facing a $128.9 million deficit, the San Francisco Planning Department approved the SFMTA Board of Directors four-to-three vote to declare a fiscal emergency so that the agency could waive California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for environmental review and raise fares and cut service to close the budget gap. The SFMTA has been operating under that declaration ever since – and is now using it to authorize the 10 percent service cuts – up to 325,000 service hours per year.

On March 2, the Board of Directors met again.  Item 10 on their agenda was a public hearing to consider a similar declaration of fiscal emergency for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, with projected deficits at $56.4 million and $45 million respectively.  They will vote on whether to declare a fiscal emergency at their regularly scheduled March 30 meeting.  Options for closing the FY 2011 deficit and the FY 2012 deficit include:

  • Reductions in work orders;
  • Recalculation of some cost recovery fees for expenses such as boot fees and color curbs;
  • Extending the hours of parking meter operation (finally, back on the list of solutions);
  • Adding 1,000 new metered spaces;
  • Bus stop consolidation;
  • Elimination of free transfers;
  • Automatic indexing of fares to the Consumer Price Index;
  • Window advertising wraps on buses;
  • Elimination of free reserved parking around City Hall; and, among other ideas,
  • An additional five percent – or 156,500 hours – of service cuts.

However, said Executive Director Nat Ford of the last item, “That was included [in the list of options] just so you have an idea what it means percentage wise.  We’re strongly working not to do that.”

SFMTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford.

Fighting back

According to the City Charter, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors can reject increased fare proposals with seven votes.  They have one month from the date that the agency submits its proposals to the clerk of the Board of Supervisors to take action.  In this case, the agency submitted its proposal to create premium passes to close the FY 2010 gap to the clerk on March 5.  If the supervisors do not reject the creation of premium passes, they will go into effect in early May.

“I oppose any further fare increases,” said Supervisor Eric Mar.

Supervisor Eric Mar

But the supervisors are – seemingly – helpless to do anything about the 10 percent service cuts – something considered much more radical by and of much more concern to many transit advocates.

“The service proposal before you does a lot of violence to mass transit in this city,” said Dan Murphy, chair of the Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens Advisory Council, on February 26.  “This will cause a mode shift in the wrong direction,” he added, in reference to the number of transit users who will revert to driving cars.

“As it stands by process alone, what I find frustrating is how everyone expects the Board of Supervisors to fix Muni, but the law practically divorces us from the ability to do so,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi when asked about the fare hikes and service cuts.  “There needs to be significant reform that enables … the Board of Supervisors to influence the decisions of the MTA or else it’s a misrepresentation that the Board [of Supervisors] is in charge.  The ones who are in charge are the mayor and the MTA Board.”  Mirkarimi has voted against the SFMTA budget in the last two years.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi

The supervisors may be virtually helpless in their capacity as elected officials, but members of the public are not.

On March 2, a self-described ‘regular public transit user and daily Muni rider’ filed an appeal of the Planning Department’s approval, partly on the basis of the fact that “the proposed May 2010 transit service reductions were not the subject of a public hearing held prior to a declaration of fiscal emergency” on April 21, 2009.  That appeal is now in the hands of the City Attorney.  If the City Attorney finds that it was filed on a timely basis, it will be heard at the Board of Supervisors 45 days after the filing date.  And if the Board of Supervisors upholds that appeal, then what?

Balancing the budget

According to state law, the SFMTA is required to balance its budget.  There are not many options for the Board of Directors to balance the budget if the appeal is upheld, but they could, perhaps:

-  Rescind their earlier decision not to raise the cost of the senior, youth, and disabled passes;

-  Pray to the gods and goddesses at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority for a loan of $7 million or more dollars; and/or,

-  Pray to the gods and goddesses of public transit that Governor Schwarzenegger sign AB X 86 and AB X 89, the complicated ‘gas tax swap’ which will generate around $400 million for the state general fund. That gas tax swap has passed both the Assembly and the State Senate, and it landed on the governor’s desk on the evening of March 8.  If the governor signs on to the gas tax swap and keeps his word, some $36 million or so will immediately become available to the SFMTA for the remainder of the fiscal year.

His signature on the gas tax swap and a successful appeal of the service cuts will buy time for the agency to seek other sources of revenue in the upcoming fiscal years when there are more options.  Those options include:

– A ballot measure to create a local vehicle license fee (VLF) that could raise $33 million annually.  This requires passage of SB 10, authorizing county governments to impose their own VLFs, at the state level – it has two major hurdles left to overcome: passage by the state Assembly and the governor’s desk.  If SB10 succeeds, two-thirds of the members of the SF Board of Supervisors would have to vote to put it on the ballot, where, if it is a general tax to raise revenue for the general fund, it would require 50 percent plus one vote to pass.  Such a measure could raise up to $44 million annually if the VLF rate is 1.85 percent;

-  A ballot measure to implement a commercial off-street parking tax;

-  A ballot measure to create parcel tax;

-  A proposal to increase the current Hotel Occupancy tax by 1 percent;

-  A half-cent sales tax; and/or,

-  A host of ideas put forward by SFMTA staff in 2007 and more recently by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Judging from the rhetoric issuing from the mouths of the directors on March 2, they could be ready to experiment with any number of them.

From Director Bruce Oka:

“I’m not ready to vote for any more service cuts.  We’ve got to take the bull by the horns and do it, otherwise we might as well not have the authority to be independent. … I’m not going to vote for any fiscal emergency.  We’re not doing out jobs if we let this go any further.”

And: “I’m tired of being told, ‘No, you can’t do that.  The mayor doesn’t want you to do that.”

Further: “The union better watch it if you guys don’t do more.  I realize it’s hard.  The public is not kind these days.  Stop being selfish.  … We’re going to lose the whole system.”

SFMTA Director Bruce Oka

From Director Cameron Beach:

“This is not an easy issue.  It was never meant to be an easy issue.  There are a lot of things on this list that we don’t like such as paid transfers or elimination of transfers all together.  I’m not interested in those options.  The system was built on a grid.”

And: “I, too, would like to see us look at various parking options such as off-street parking taxes.”

But: “I’m on the fence about stop consolidation.  We need more detail.”

With regard to wrapping (advertisements that cover whole buses): “It’s a safety and security issue, but I’d rather have a wrapped vehicle than no vehicle at all.”

SFMTA Director Cameron Beach

From an anonymous person who knows the agency well:

“If I were the [San Francisco County Transportation Authority], I would be willing to negotiate to give more than the $7 million [that the SFMTA has asked for] on the condition that they don’t do the service cuts or that they limit the service cuts to five percent or something.”

Susan Vaughan

Bio: Sue Vaughan was born and raised in the northeast part of the country. In 1988 she turned down a reporting job at the Boston-area newspaper because accepting the job would have required her to buy a car. In 1990, she finally escaped the bitter northeast winters and sweltering summers by taking a Greyhound bus from the East Coast to the West Coast. She first lived in that suburban "hotbed of social rest" (so described by former SF Chronicle columnist Rob Morse) Palo Alto, which inspired her to commit herself to the car-free existence. She moved from there to the Richmond District of San Francisco, taught on and off for several years, worked on her masters degree, and became a sustainable transportation activist. She now freelance writes, gardens, and draws.

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Comments for Minding Muni, Part II are now closed.

  1. Tried to reply to the first MUNI article.

    Went to the meeting Thursday (3/11/2010) at the Height Asbury Neighborhood Council and heard some of the ideas of Sue Vaughan. Two that really bugged me – having the city parking meters work on Sunday and not wanting to see the 4th bore of the Caldecott tunnel dug. What is wrong with having one day of peace without parking meters sucking money? Even the Christians have one day of rest on Sunday. It’s Gods day let’s let the parking meters rest. San Francisco does not need to become the city of money grubbing parking meters – if you want to tax drivers institute a $50 per gallon gasoline tax – perhaps that would do a lot for helping to finance MUNI. As for the Caldecott tunnel 4th bore – it should have been done 20 years ago when the 3rd bore was done. If the Federal government needs to spend money to stimulate the economy a tunnel is far more useful that a bridge to nowhere in Alaska or the money that the Obama administration is spending in Iraq ($1 million per year per soldier to basically kill people).
    But it did cause me to look up Sue’s writings on the Fog City Journal. Here are some of my comments to this piece.

    Muni drivers have incredibly hard jobs. Agree with you on this. Not sure if they are overpaid but they are certainly are underappreciated. Most do an incredible job under difficult circumstances. But there are some that should not be working as drivers – even drivers at the meeting acknowledged this. Whatever happens at MUNI the drivers are key to rebuilding public transit in the city.
    Few question that after three Milton Friedmanesque decades … Now Sue should know that this is the propaganda technique of name calling – perhaps she does and is using this propaganda technique consiously . Instead of dealing with the issues she attempts to demonize the entire work of Milton Friedman without any reference to the ideas he exposes. She exposes herself to the criticism of being either a sloppy writer or just plain stupid.

    the 18 cent per gallon gas tax – why is the idea of raising the gas tax to 50 cents and using the extra 32 cents for public transit – seems like it could provide a stable source of funds for public transit as well as discoursing the use of private automobiles.

    Other gigantic capital projects are also getting huge infusions of federal and/or regional and local money. That is the federal government for you – funding construction projects and not operating expenses. Wonder why this is? Could it possibly because lobbyist write the laws that congress passes? Could it possibly be that both parties – the democrats and republicans benefit from the current system and that there is no motivation for changing it.

  2. Yes, I did know. Because of Proposition A, the Board of Supervisors cannot weigh in on the service cuts — unless the ‘route abandonment’ language in that part of the charter is broadly defined to include service reductions (if an Owl line gets cut from once every half and hour to once an hour, leaving waiting passengers to feel abandoned, for example, is that ‘route abandonment’?). Can the supervisors, wearing their “Transportation Authority” commissioner hats, give or loan money from the SFCTA to the SFMTA? To my knowledge, Proposition K does not specifically forbid them from doing that.

  3. Hi Sue – The Mayor, the SFMTA Directors and Nat Ford all get critical comments from you – which may or may not be deserved. But, you quote the Board of Supes as saying they can’d do anything while you also say “pray to the god and goddesses of the SF County Transportation Authority for a loan of $7M or more”. Is there a reason why you don’t identify who those SFCTA “gods and goddesses” or Board members are? Or did you not know that they are — yes, the SF Board of Supervisors. The SFCTA Board Chair is Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.