Counting to Eight for No Fare Hikes and Service Cuts

by Casey Mills on May 2, 2005

As the budget season at City Hall rapidly approaches, it’s time transit advocates take a long look at the chances of the Board of Supervisors shooting down Muni’s proposal to cut services and raise fares. Unfortunately, a tough battle awaits. To send the budget back to the Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) for revision, eight members of the Board must vote it down. Activists must start searching now for a feasible way to get those votes.

Transit advocates can likely count three votes in the bag. The Board’s progressive core of Chris Daly, Ross Mirkarimi and Tom Ammiano appear unwilling to support either fare hikes or service cuts due to their consistent support of environmental, economic and social justice.

Each progressive supervisor will likely accentuate an aspect of the hikes and cuts they particularly distain; Daly, the lack of social equity involved in hiking the cost of public transportation; Mirkarimi, the anti-environmentalism inherent in forcing more people into their cars; and Ammiano, the general mismanagement of Muni required to raise fares at the same time they’re reducing services. But all should agree with each others points and vote the budget be sent back to the MTA.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, two votes can likely be counted as hopeless – those of Sean Elsbernd’s and Michela Alioto-Pier. Nine times out of ten, both of these Supes will follow the Mayor’s lead on an issue. Because Mayor Gavin Newsom already declared his support for the MTA’s current budget, it would take a miracle for either of Elsbernd or Alioto-Pier to vote against the man that appointed them.

That leaves seven votes unaccounted for. Let’s start with the potentially hardest to obtain and work towards the easiest.

On the surface, Fiona Ma seems an almost impossible vote to obtain. Her consistently conservative stance on everything from condominium conversions to corporate give-aways makes her unlikely to vote against something like Muni fare hikes and service cuts.

But Ma’s district, the Sunset, represents one of the highest concentrations of Muni riders outside Chinatown. In addition, Ma faces a potentially tough race for State Assembly next year in a district that will also encompass the Sunset. She can’t afford to alienate a big chunk of her base by signing off on higher costs and less service for her base.

The key will be proving to Ma that her base will in fact be up in arms over a yes vote on the Muni budget. It will be up to activists to prove that to her.

Bevan Dufty, another relatively conservative Supervisor, also seems unlikely to vote no. But Dufty also faces a tough November next year in his bid for re-election to the Board. Despite Dufty beating out progressives Elieen Hansen and Tom Radulovich to grab the District 8 seat, his constituency voted for Matt Gonzalez in the recent mayoral race, not Gavin Newsom. Should Dufty fail to stop his rightward drift, he stands a good chance of being replaced.

Previous to a recent spate of hearings in support of condo conversions called by Dufty, it appeared he was moving to the left in order to ensure his reelection. Voting against Muni fare hikes and service cuts could present an excellent way to prove to voters that he does in fact represent their interests, despite his recent conservative track record.

Due to her representing Bayview-Hunters Point, it would seem Sophie Maxwell would be a shoo-in for voting against the MTA budget. But Maxwell has been unpredictable lately, often failing to live up to the label of progressive that helped her win her seat on the Board.

To ensure her vote, Maxwell needs a clear picture painted to her of the vital role of public transit in her district. Without cheap and reliable buses and trains, many of her constituents would be unable to get to their jobs. Bayview already represents an underserved area – members of this community must lobby Maxwell to ensure it doesn’t become even more so.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin remains an adamant supporter of making downtown pay their fair share for Muni service. However, it now appears that developing and implementing a way to do so for the 2005-06 fiscal year may be unfeasible. Whether Peskin decides that despite this, sending the budget back to the MTA remains the best idea remains to be seen.

Peskin needs concrete proof that downtown can somehow be tapped to help close the deficit. If activists or Peskin himself can come up with one soon, his vote against the budget seems a sure thing. The District 11 Supe represents Chinatown, which some estimate supplies Muni with 40 percent of their ridership. His constituency will not be happy with more expensive service, which should help motivate him to seek ways to keep that anger from being directed at him.

Supervisor Jake McGodrick has taken the lead in auditing Muni’s budget, and should be credited as a strong advocate for reliable, affordable public transportation. However, he might see voting against the MTA’s budget as fruitless unless the audit turns up some solid alternative forms of revenue. Judging by Muni management’s general ineptness, it’s likely this will happen, leaving McGoldrick able to vote against the budget as a matter of principal.

Finally, Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval. Sandoval may belong in the sure-thing core of Ammiano, Daly and Mirkarimi, as he has proven himself to be a remarkably strong progressive on a number of recent issues (his fight against the Convention and Visitors Bureau and his statements during Daly’s recent battle against the bike-race giveaway, for example). Nevertheless, Sandoval needs the political cover to vote no on the budget, given his relatively conservative constituency. It’s up to transit advocates to provide him with that.

The question on all of these Supervisors minds remains to be definitively answered – how can the MTA come up with the money to close the budget without hikes or cuts? A variety of possibilities exist, including higher car-based taxes, better enforcement of the parking tax, cuts in Muni management, and inchoate ideas about taxing downtown.

It will be up to the Board to take the lead on making sure the MTA takes another look at their budget and makes sure they have exhausted all of these options. The details should be left up to those who created the budget, while the job of applying the political pressure to make them do so should be left to the eight members of the Board who will hopefully vote against fare hikes and service cuts.

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