Blame MTA Board for MUNI’s Fiscal Mess

by Bob Planthold on February 22, 2010

The MTA Board — too little; too late; not enough. The MTA Board of Directors is putting all passengers, but especially seniors and people with disabilities, through much anxiety about proposed solutions to the multiple budget deficits now facing MUNI. MTA is substantially short on revenue not only for the remaining few months of this fiscal year, but also for the next budgetary cycle.

So the MTA is seriously considering a proposal to double the current price of a Fast Pass for seniors and for people with disabilities, after already raising the price by 50% last year. This is such a large increase in such a short time [ from $10/month last spring to $30/month this spring] that now over 3,000 people have signed a petition to freeze fares for our Fast Passes. This organizing effort began early last December, through efforts spearheaded by advocates from the Independent Living Resource Center and from Planning for Elders in the Central City.

Before MTA released any draft proposals for these unprecedented increases, advocates from these vulnerable communities saw a need to pre-emptively organize. Too often, seniors and people with disabilities haven’t been carefully considered when all sorts of changes in fare structures and service frequencies have been authorized.

For example, in the mid-1990s, MUNI eliminated transfers. Result? Farebox revenue and ridership dropped. It most affected those most dependent on MUNI — seniors and people with disabilities. Mobility through transit was, and still is, a key way for these two vulnerable constituencies to get to and from classes, friends, jobs, shopping, entertainment, parks, and so on.

So, it was the organizing efforts of seniors–through Senior Action Network — that reversed that harmful fare structure and ended the downward spiral of ridership and revenue.

Now, when MTA wants to triple the price of a Fast Pass in less than one year, it’s the experienced and transit-dependent populations that take the lead.

Whether the numbers of petition signers and the attendance at MTA fare hearings by seniors and people with disabilities can sway the MTA board is another matter.

MTA proposes these dramatic changes in fares and services even though other factors have reduced the income and increased the expenses of many people with disabilities and seniors. Any who subsist on any form of Social Security pension haven’t had any regular cost-of-living increase and even have had some reductions in their monthly allotments. At the same time, any who are on Medi-Cal now have to pay for dental work, vision care, and podiatric care.

That’s not to say that MTA should be a subsidy of last resort for people with limited resources. But, the MTA board consistently has ignored its fiduciary duty to properly plan for and manage the agency’s finances.

For years, the MTA board has had the power to raise money itself — whether by selling bonds or asking voters for a small sales tax increment or asking voters to authorize a special assessment district.

The MTA has never shown any independence on seeking funding nor asserted its own power; instead they are always relying on somebody else to substantially fund them — through the city’s general fund and through grants from the federal and state governments — as well as whatever farebox revenue might be collected.

This institutional passivity and dependence has now gotten MUNI to a point where it will punish those most in need, acquiesce to the wishes of one person to favor those privileged to drive, seek an advance of sales tax funds not due it for years, reduce service, and lay off staff who can keep the service going.

MTA’s board of directors, picked solely by the Mayor, again bows to the wishes of one politician in deciding what it can and can’t vote on, on whom it will favor, and on whom it will further burden. Though recent MTA ballot measures were meant to take the politics out of MUNI, still the MTA board is ostrich-like in following the lead of one politican in refusing to consider a ready source of revenue.

This means seniors and people with disabilities may have to pay more and get less. Or, maybe not even get less but get left behind more and more, as busses get and stay crowded throughout most of their route.

MTA staff did a commendable job in analyzing the possibilities for revenue from parking meters in selected commercial districts that often have businesses open until 8 or 9 pm. Somehow, the anger from another city’s failed efforts on evening parking meter rates are making the MTA board and their inspiring politician back away in fear.

For the MTA board, and for any politician, to make a decision based on fear of what happened elsewhere also shows they haven’t even read the MTA staff report. The experiment clearly references one control area already charging for parking at meters until 11 pm–the meters controlled by the SF Port in the Fisherman’s Wharf area and along the Embarcadero. These Port areas haven’t called for parking meters to stop charging at earlier hours.

SO, an experiment for some districts to have parking meters charge during the times many businesses are open could help make more car drivers pay while shopping in their neighborhoods and reduce the chances that residents park free overnight, from 6 pm until the next morning’s drive to work.

That MTA could leave money on the table, so as not to harm the political images of some, and to make decisions based on fear rather than on facts, is an indication of how much the MTA board has consistently failed in its fiduciary duties. Yet, even here, the MTA board doesn’t really suffer by their INactions. Too many of them have choice of multiple modes of transportation, and are not as restricted as the tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities who can’t afford a Fast Pass tripled in price and can’t afford to stand in the cold, windy rain while multiple crowded busses pass them up.

Even to put blame for solving the current deficit on the backs of the MUNI workers isn’t a solution. It was management and the MTA board that did nothing for too long. Now, they are trying to remedy their mistakes by cutting staff and wages. That’s a common tactic used by the Hoover Administration at the beginning of the Great Depression. Regressive methods used by a discredited Republican administration are now being suggested by a supposedly liberal city’s government.

It remains to be seen whether the February 26th MTA board meeting will show courage and creativity — or cowardice — in solving current budget deficits.

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