Minding Muni, Part V

Written by Susan Vaughan. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on May 22, 2010 with No Comments

By Sue Vaughan

May 22, 2010

All over the country, public transportation systems are cutting back service under the weight of huge budget deficits.  Most people think these agencies are casualties of the recession, and to certain extent they are probably right.  But to me, these agencies and their ballooning deficits are something else also — they are canaries in the coal mine, indications of problems that go deeper than even the subprime loan fiasco that many are blaming for the current state of the economy.  Collapsing transit agencies are signs that the anti-tax mania of the last few decades is a failure.  They are also signs that our western lifestyle — dependent as it is on plentiful and cheap natural resources, especially fossil fuels — could be reaching its limits and going into decline as demand now begins to outstrip supply.

It seems logical that as a species, nation, state, and/or municipality, we should be adjusting to the new reality of dwindling natural resources by building sustainable communities and bolstering our public transit systems, but even in San Francisco, the opposite is happening.  With the knowledge that our General Plan calls for 72 percent affordable housing or below market rate, our Planning Commission continues to approve permits for high-rise luxury condominiums whose lifespans are unknown.  Our Planning Commission and our Board of Supervisors have also recently passed legislation allowing developers to defer community benefit fees, automatically scaling back funds which would flow to our public transit.

In addition, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)  — the city department that manages public transit (Muni), parking, traffic, pedestrians, bicycles, and taxis — is going into its third consecutive year of budget deficits (FY 2009, FY 2010, and FY 2011).  In response, the SFMTA Board of Directors has voted to raise Muni fares and cut service.  On May 8, it implemented Muni service cuts of ten percent.

While many people may not have initially noticed an increase in head way time between their regular buses during the day, they may have noticed increased crowding.  And people who depend on community lines — such as the 52 Exclesior and the 35 Eureka, both of which serve a hill above Glen Park — may feel stranded by a cutback in the window of service (those lines used to end around 12:30 every night; now, the last of those buses end at 9:30 pm).  They may even resort to driving cars which goes against San Francisco’s official “transit first” policy.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has launched a signature-gathering effort to place an amendment on the ballot to change the way Muni drivers are compensated. The ballot measure does not speculate about how much money could be saved through passage of the measure, but SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius has written that work rule changes that make the agency run more efficiently (and which might be compelled by passage of the ballot measure) could create savings for the agency of around $15 million over two years.

Fifteen million dollars could be important, but that amount is dwarfed by the deficits that the agency has faced in the past three years: over $200 million.  The agency itself used to have an operating budget of over $800 million, but cutbacks have reduced that budget to around $750 million.

Previously, the seven board of directors of the SFMTA (the board is now down to five members, as two were termed out at the beginning of May, and the mayor has not appointed replacements)  had also sought $7 million from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA).

On May 20, Mayor Gavin Newsom released a press statement in which he lashed out at Muni drivers for refusing to agree to salary concessions and at the SF Board of Supervisors — in their capacity as TA commissioners — for refusing to allocate $7 million from the TA to Muni for maintenance.  But the supervisors — as commissioners — made that decision weeks ago and they actually agreed to release the money if Newsom and SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford agreed to find the money to restore 50 percent of the service that was slated to be cut on May 8.   Where could they find some of the money?  Well, in part from expanding the hours parking meter operation

So what is really going on?

I venture a guess: the mayor got his thunder stolen by four members of the Board of Supervisors.

On Tuesday, May 18 those four supervisors, Board President David Chiu, Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, and Eric Mar, unveiled a Muni-related charter amendment for the November ballot.  While the measure includes the elements of Supervisor Elsbernd’s charter proposal to move the drivers to a system of collective bargaining to arrive at their salaries and benefits, it is much broader and much bolder.   It fights back against the degradation of public transit that is happening all over the country by dedicating a significant amount of money from the general fund ( two and a half cents per every $100 of assessed property taxes or around $40 million annually) to the agency, and it:

— Splits the appointment process to the SFMTA Board of Directors evenly between the supervisors (who hear it from their district constituents when a line in their district is abandoned, reduced, or altered).  The mayor will have three appointments, the supervisors three, and the the mayor and supervisors jointly one;

— Empowers the Board of Supervisors to reject the SFMTA Board of Directors budget proposals with a simple majority of six of 11 members of the board (right now seven members are needed to reject the budget);

— Creates a process for creating a new budget, should the Board of Supervisors reject a budget;

— Expands the definition of ‘route abandonment’ to include any line that experiences a reduction in more than three service hours per day and reduction by more than five percent of the total system wide transit service hours (route abandonments must be approved by the Board of Supervisors);

— Creates the position of Inspector General to report directly to the Board whose job description would include audits and analyses of the agency among other duties; and,

— Makes incentive compensation for service critical MTA employees optional.

Is $40 million additional funding annually enough?  It could be, but it doesn’t take the SFMTA Board of Directors off the hook.  On May 18, a bi-monthly meeting of the Board of Directors was cancelled, apparently because Mayor Gavin Newsom had not yet appointed people to fill two vacancies, and there was no quorum.  On the agenda for that meeting was consideration of several revenue-raising measures for the November ballot.  It could be that a combination of ballot measures will be necessary to infuse the agency with the funding — and oversight — that are necessary to make it run efficiently and well long into the future.

Meanwile, while I like the looks of this charter amendment right now, I’m still concerned about the ten percent service cuts.  On May 20, the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors continued a motion to reject the FY 2011-FY 2012 SFMTA budget, which includes the ten percent service cuts, until a meeting sometime in June, pending discussions with representatives of the SFMTA and the mayor.

In addition, the San Francisco Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, of which I am a member, passed two Muni-related measures on Tuesday, May 18:

1.  The Sierra Club supports mass transit as a part of local, regional, state, and national efforts to combat global warming and sprawl.  With this in mind, the San Francisco Group of the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports the restoration of the ten percent bus and light rail service cuts that went into effect on May 8, 2010 no later than September 4, 2010.  In particular, the Sierra Club supports the restoration of the half-hourly owl service on all routes.  The Sierra Club also supports restoration of the service window of operation (i.e. first and last trip times) of all lines to at least the December 5, 2009 levels.  The Sierra Club also supports restoration of the frequencies of operation on all routes (i.e. reduced head ways) to at least December 5, 2009 levels.  Early morning and night service should be restored first; And,

2.  The Sierra Club supports rejection of the current [SFMTA] budget which includes the 10 percent service cuts.

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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