Muni “Emergency” Budget Has Wrong Priorities

by Paul Hogarth on May 1, 2009

Facing a $129 million deficit, the Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) passed an emergency budget yesterday that raised fares, cut more service and eliminated bus lines. Everyone knows we’re in a crisis, but this budget – which faces an “up-or-down” vote at the Board of Supervisors – fails to make the most fiscally prudent decisions, doesn’t ask everyone to fairly “share the pain” and leaves the City’s transit-dependent riders out in the cold. Cash fares and Fast Passes will go up (without improving the low-income Lifeline pass), while a parking fee hike that even the Chamber of Commerce supports was rejected. Bus lines were eliminated without adding service elsewhere, while Muni saved the 39-Coit – because enough rich people complained. And while the MTA made progress on the infamous “work order” fiasco, they’re still getting robbed $66.3 million by other City Departments – including $13 million from the Police. While Mayor Gavin Newsom’s City budget doesn’t ask everyone to sacrifice, neither does the MTA proposal. Seven Supervisors can vote to send it back.

In 1999 and 2007, voters passed Charter Amendments – first to have an independent Commission run Muni, and then to give it more money and autonomy. The purpose was to de-politicize transit decisions, so that “experts” can make the wisest choices to make San Francisco a “transit-first” City. But if the Mayor appoints all seven Commissioners, it’s under the same pressure of other City Departments. Only when we found out Gavin Newsom dipped into MTA funds to pay political appointees did we see this as a problem. Now, with the Mayor directing all City agencies to “cut” 25% of their budgets, the MTA has become a private ATM for solving the problems of other Departments – via “work orders.”

The MTA Board acknowledged the “work order” problem at yesterday’s meeting, as the revised budget took $10 million off the $80 million it had been charged by City agencies. But the changes are small. 311 was charging Muni for every bus-related phone inquiry, and asked for $7.7 million – now they’ll be getting just $6.9 million. The MTA will take over some of the “duties” the Police Department was providing – which will save Muni $1.9 million, or 10% of the “work orders” from Police. And while Public Health was charging Muni $5.1 million for the cost of sending patients to SF General Hospital, now the money will go to Claims. All in all, Muni is still on the hook for $70 million.

MTA Chairman Tom Nolan proposed an amendment to shave another $4.2 million off Police Department “work orders,” and pass a $3 surcharge for parking citations at the Courthouse – which combined would net $9 million. But as part of the same amendment, MTA Commissioners blew the $9 million by rejecting a staff recommendation to expand parking meter hours to Sunday – and up to 10:00 p.m. on weeknights. Rather than split up the motion and vote on each item, the MTA voted down a parking proposal that even the Chamber of Commerce supported. Nine million dollars that could have been used to forestall fare hikes and service cuts – which will directly affect transit-dependent riders.

What fare hikes and service cuts could have been averted? Consider the following:

The MTA Board went full-speed ahead on fare hikes. On July 1st, cash fares will go from $1.50 to $2.00. The Fast Pass, already slated to hit $55 on July 1st, will go up to $60 just six months later. The Senior and Disabled passes were scheduled to go from $10 to $15 on July 1st – and on January 1st they will climb up to $20. Muni’s low-income Lifeline Pass will stay at $35 (but doesn’t work on BART), and it continues to be inaccessible for many who need it – with huge administrative costs at the Human Services Agency.

And while fare hikes are bad news in a bad economy, the service cuts are even worse.

For years, critics of Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) called it the “Transit Elimination Project.” Now that the budget has passed, they’re absolutely right. The TEP evaluated all of Muni’s bus lines – and proposed various route changes to improve the system, which meant eliminating some routes and beefing others. For example, the plan called on eliminating the 26-Valencia – but increasing service on the 14-Mission and the 49-Mission. The TEP was supposed to be “budget neutral,” but that’s no longer possible. Yesterday, the MTA voted to scrap eight bus lines – without compensating elsewhere.

But against the initial staff recommendation, the MTA saved the 39-Coit – which serves a more affluent part of town. If Muni’s concerned about saving money during tough times to help transit-dependent riders, it was an obscene waste of funds. While nobody wants to see any buses eliminated, priority must be placed on lines that are (a) heavily used, (b) financially efficient, and (c) serve people who can’t afford cars. The 14-Mission serves thousands of low-income people, and costs only $1.35 a rider to operate. The 49-Mission likewise only costs $1.45 per rider. The 26-Valencia – which was eliminated – costs Muni four dollars per rider. But the 39-Coit costs almost eight dollars per rider.

According to the staff report, Muni voted to save the 39-Coit due to “public feedback.” Last fall, Claudine Cheng – a pro-business candidate for District 3 Supervisor – organized a group of upper-middle class to wealthy residents in Telegraph Hill and lobbied the MTA to “save the 39-Coit.” Initially slated for elimination by the TEP, the MTA Board amended the Plan to keep their bus. Now, as we face dire economic times that can’t justify lines that help a small sliver of wealthy patrons, Muni addressed their concerns anyway.

The Board of Supervisors cannot tweak Muni’s budget, but the Charter does allow a 7-4 supermajority to reject the entire budget. It’s time for our legislative branch to let the Mayor’s appointed Commissioners know such a transit budget is not acceptable.

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