Minding Muni, Part IV

Written by Susan Vaughan. Posted in News, Politics

Published on April 09, 2010 with 11 Comments

By Sue Vaughan

April 9, 2010

If you’ve gotten on a 38L recently and noticed newspapers strewn about, banana peels here and there and graffiti all over the floor from front to back – as I did recently – there’s a reason: in response to ongoing budget deficits, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) cut 14 transit car cleaners on January 25, leaving 84.

The deficits the agency has faced are real – $128.9 million last year, $12.1 million for FY 2010, and $19 million for FY 2011, and SFMTA staff has been working hard to find revenue.

“We’ve done all that we can to try to cover that gap and close that gap,” said SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford on April 6 at San Francisco County Transportation Agency Plans and Programs Committee meeting.

SFMTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford

But have they?

Extended the Hours of Parking Meter Operation

The agency, under the direction of the seven members of the SFMTA Board of Directors, all mayoral appointees, is continuing to resist expanding the hours of parking meter operation, a practice that could bring in about $9 million annually.

Yet other solutions – including 10 percent service cuts that are to go into effect around May 1 and buses wrapped with advertisements – are still on the table.  In addition, on March 30, the directors voted 5 to 2 to declare a fiscal emergency for the FY 2011 fiscal year – continuing the emergency they had declared nearly a year before.  That declaration gives them leeway to institute more service cuts should the need arise in the next year without conducting environmental impact reviews.  (Directors Shirley Breyer-Black and James McCray voted against the declaration.)

I serve on the Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens Advisory Council (MTA CAC).  At our April 1 Finance and Administration subcommittee meeting, extended parking meter hours – both on Sundays and weekday evenings, for $9 million – were included in the list of possible solutions that staff would present to the Board of Directors at their April 6 meeting.  (The council recommends going to extended hours in places where the parking vacancy rate falls below 20 percent.)

Parking meters were originally installed in commercial parts of the city in 1947 to help businesses by encouraging turnover.  In 1947, stores were closed on Sundays, and since that is no longer the case, one would think that meters should have been in operation on Sundays for years – and on weeknights in neighborhoods with restaurants and theaters.  After all, charging for parking, while more expensive, reduces the amount of time that people spend circling in search of parking and is thus easier on both people’s lungs and psyches.

But by April 5, at the full MTA CAC meeting, weekday evening hours had been removed from the list of possible solutions, and in any case, the final budget calculations presented to the Board of Directors on April 6 did not include even extending the hours of parking meter operation to only Sunday (see the PDF for Item 11 on the Agenda for the April 6 meeting) – indicating there must be some powerful people behind the scenes who are resisting the proposal to expand the hours of parking meter operation.

In fairness, there is a proposal to move forward with a pilot project to test expanding the hours of meter operation in a few commercial districts in the City in conjunction with the agency’s SFPark program.

“The main thing I’m looking for is business feedback,” said Director Malcolm Heinicke at the March 30 meeting.  “Are we gaining a couple of quarters in revenue versus depleting the sales tax revenue?”

But what about transit riders?

“I used to ride Muni,” said former Muni bus rider Beth Byrne. “I lived in the Haight and I bought a monthly pass.”  But when the price of the pass went up to $55, she stopped purchasing the pass.  “It was too expensive and too time consuming for me to get to work.”

I can say the same for myself.  Last summer, when the price of the pass went up to $55, I stopped buying the pass, and switched primarily to my bicycle.   (As a member of the MTA CAC, I now get a free pass.)

Ballot Measures

The members of the Board of Directors have the power to put revenue-generating measures on the ballot, but they never have.  However, in recent weeks, ballot measures have become a topic of conversation at Board meetings, especially at their April 6 meeting:

From Director James McCray:

“Whichever one we focus on, we need to focus on one that will give us the biggest boost.”

From Director Bruce Oka:

“If [a successful ballot measure] doesn’t bring us continual revenue, I don’t think it’s going to be very useful.”

Director Bruce Oka

From Director Malcolm Heinicke:

“I agree with that in theory.  I disagree in practice.  I think the reality is, it seems like we’re playing catch up.  We need to make a personal commitment to make the budget our priority. … If we’re going to do anything for the ballot, it has to be for November.  The only [ballot suggestion] that will fly will be the commercial off-street parking tax put on by the Board of Supervisors … sunsetted after two years.”

Director Malcolm Heinicke

From Executive Director Ford:

“What are you trying to accomplish?  Short-term survival or an opportunity to enhance the system to industry-level standards of maintenance? … Are we looking at what we need for the next couple of years or long-term?”

SFMTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford

From Board of Directors Chairman Tom Nolan:

Regarding “Commercial off-street parking taxes, someone’s got to take this and run with it. … We’d like to see if there’s any interest at the Board of Supervisors.”

Board of Directors Chair Tom Nolan

From ED Ford:

“We could give you a document with pros and cons and a discussion of strategy before May 4.”

From Director Shirley Breyer-Black:

“Who’s going to do the political campaign?  Who will make sure it will pass?”

Director Shirley Breyer Black

Seven million dollars from the SFCTA?

The agency has also asked for a one-time allocation of $7 million from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Proposition K sales tax funds for vehicle maintenance.

At the transit agency in Atlanta, Georgia, where Ford previously worked, plans for vehicle maintenance were made as a part of each vehicle purchase.  When he arrived at Muni four and a half years ago, there were no plans to rehabilitate many vehicles.

“The agency,” he said, “is now working on the sins of the past to try to correct those problems.”

According to SFCTA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich, however, a legal opinion delivered to the SFCTA Plans and Programs Committee on April 6 is “not a particularly favorable opinion.”

SFCTA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich

In fact, the opinion states:

While certain expenditures on maintenance are allowed, the [Proposition K Transportation Expenditure Plan] specifically limits eligibility for maintenance funds, stating that operations and maintenance expenditures “shall be limited exclusively to incremental costs associated with the operation of new transportation services and/or facilities, as specified in the TEP”.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will consider an appeal of the exemption from California Environmental Quality Act requirements for environmental impact review – created by the April 2009 declaration of fiscal emergency – of the 10 percent service cuts planned for about May 1, at its meeting on April 13, 2010.  The appeal is Agenda Number 25, Item 100288.

The SFMTA Board of Directors has rescinded a proposal to create $70 premium express bus and cable car passes in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature on the gas tax swap.

The directors may adopt a budget for FY 2011 on April 20.  If they do not, they will meet again on April 30 to reconsider adopting a budget.  The budget will then go to the supervisors.  Seven out of the 11 supervisors can vote to reject the budget.

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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