Losses on this Year’s MUNI Budget Should Not Cloud Major Victories

by Casey Mills on May 26, 2005

Despite Tuesday’s setback at the Board of Supervisors meeting, transit advocates can claim some major victories on this year’s MUNI budget. Community outrage over fare hikes and service cuts drew several major concessions: the roll-back of the Senior, Youth and Disabled fare hike; an end to several proposed service cuts, including draconian cuts to the Owl line; and now, it appears the cost of the Fast Pass will not be raised. While the Coalition for Transit Justice failed to end all fare hikes and service cuts, activists set the agenda and ultimately won the debate.

Transit advocates face an uphill battle when fighting for affordable, dependable MUNI service. Proposition E, passed a couple years ago, allows the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) almost total control over their budget, with the Board of Supervisors having almost no say in the process. In addition, mayoral appointees compose the entire MTA Board, creating a body largely unresponsive to public outcry.

Despite these formidable obstacles, transit advocates turned the original budget proposed by the MTA into something far, far better. The first MTA budget balanced about 45 percent of its $57 million budget gap on transit riders, and about 25 percent on car drivers. By the time the MTA finished with the budget, those numbers had been reversed.

Even so, the budget presented to the Board by the MTA still included a broad range of fare hikes and service cuts. But now, thanks in large part to a host of rallies, a massive postcard campaign with extensive outreach to everyday San Franciscans, and solid attendance at public meetings on MUNI, activists can declare some major victories.

For starters, the Senior, Disabled and Youth fare will not be raised. A solid chunk of the advocacy around the MUNI budget came from these constituencies, and they should be proud that they will not suffer from an unjust fare hike next year due to their efforts.

In addition, Michael Burns announced yesterday MUNI has plans to keep the price of the Fast Pass from increasing. Should this proposal be enacted, transit advocates can rejoice. The $9 Fast Pass hike would have hit the working-class San Franciscans who depend on public transportation to get to their jobs hard, and stopping it is reason for celebration.

Finally, the worst of the service cuts have been prevented. Under MUNI’s first proposal, all waits for Owl lines would have increased from 30 minutes to an hour, causing great hardship to youths without cars and to working-class people with night jobs. Several other headway adjustments were eliminated, ensuring thousands of city residents can depend on their bus coming when its supposed to.

Some could argue that surprise increases in revenue, not activism, caused MUNI to stop many of the fare hikes and service cuts. But judging from the MTA’s original proposal for next year’s budget, stopping fare hikes and service cuts remain very low on their agenda. Without public pressure to point out that hikes and cuts are matters of social, environmental and economic justice, the MTA most likely would have used the extra money to decrease parking fares even more and throw the rest of the extra money into the budgetary black hole called “capital deferrements.”

This means transit advocates should be extremely proud of their efforts. They forced a real debate over fare hikes and service cuts, and set the agenda for public discussion about this MTA budget. Without their work, bus riders across the city would be facing a much harsher landscape next year.

Yet total victory cannot be claimed. The symbolic 25 cent increase in the daily fare remains in place, giving the impression to many San Franciscans that the the fight for transit justice was lost. In addition, a variety of service cuts will happen, causing more crowded buses to come less often.

Transit riders have the Board of Supervisors to thank for that. On Tuesday, the majority of the Board sent a clear message to those who ride buses – illegal parkers are simply more important.

Five years ago, a wave of city-wide anger over the reign of the Willie Brown machine swept a new Board of Supervisors into office, most of whom claimed to be progressive. Thousands of environmentalists, social justice advocates, and other activists walked precincts in nearly every neighborhood in San Francisco to get people like Gerardo Sandoval, Sophie Maxwell, and Jake McGoldrick elected.

Last Tuesday, these Supervisors betrayed their progressive bases. They could have stopped the 25 cent fare increase simply by restoring the parking fine and fee increased to the levels originally proposed in the MTAs budget. But, under the leadership of McGoldrick and Sandoval, they chose not to, and in doing so endorsed the fare increase and service cuts.

In addition, Fiona Ma early indicated she would be willing to send the parking fines and fees back. Her failure to do so and her approval of the fare hike could provide fodder for Janet Riley in the upcoming race between the two for state assembly.

Supervisors Chris Daly, Ross Mirkarimi, and Tom Ammiano should be considered heroes by environmental and social justice advocates for their role in advocating for no hikes or cuts. Their commitment to a transit-first policy last Tuesday was truly inspiring, and those involved with MUNI issues should take the time to call or e-mail their appreciation. Supervisor Aaron Peskin offered a compromise measure that would have raised the parking fines and fees back up halfway, and should also be commended.

Activists’ and progressive Supervisor’s failure to stop all fare hikes and service cuts, however, should not take attention away from the major victories achieved this year. If nothing else, many San Franciscans began to understand they can have an effect on how public transportation is run in this city. That’s an important gain not only for the possibility of an affordable, reliable MUNI system in this city, but for the future of progressive activism among its riders.

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