Proposition A Passed – Now What?

by Paul Hogarth on November 13, 2007

Now that a broad coalition has passed Muni Reform, it’s time to evaluate what priorities are needed to make our transit system more effective. The MTA now has an extra $26 million in annual revenue and expanded powers, giving us the potential to have the world-class system that San Francisco deserves. But while running a more efficient system that quickly shuttles white-collar workers Downtown is important, Muni must make basic improvements for “transit-dependent” riders who have no other way to get around. The Lifeline Pass, available to low-income riders at a small discount, must be made less expensive – or else usable on BART. Prop A mandated replacing the old diesel buses with fuel-efficient hybrids – and Muni must prioritize doing so in communities most adversely affected by pollution. And there are still issues in the Southeast after Muni eliminated the 15-Bus, because the T has not been a good substitute for everyone.

The Lifeline Pass:

In 2005, after raising fares twice in two years, the M.T.A. announced they would create a low-income bus pass to shield “transit-dependent” riders. There has been little outreach about the pass, and initial efforts by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic – which publishes Beyond Chron – have shown it’s not much help for most who qualify. Muni’s Regular Fast Pass is $45/month, and the M.T.A. has for years had a Senior and Disabled pass at $10/month. But the Lifeline Pass – where users must prove they make less than 200% of the federal poverty line ($20,000-$27,000 a year) – is sold at $35/month.

Besides the fact that the Lifeline Pass only gives riders a $10 discount, unlike the Regular Pass it cannot be used on BART. This creates huge problems for working class residents, especially in the Mission – who rely heavily on BART to get Downtown because the 14-Bus is too slow to get there. While many Chinatown bus riders are buying the Lifeline Pass, few low-income Mission riders are using it – even though the only two places you can buy it are in the Mission District. Many riders are simply biting the extra $10 to get a Regular Fast Pass, because it’s easier to get it and it works on BART.

While the Senior and Disabled passes also don’t work on BART, their discount is considerably greater. And BART provides its own discounts for senior and disabled riders, but has no equivalent for low-income people. Now that Prop A has passed and Muni will have more money, the M.T.A. can make 2 possible chances that would allow the Lifeline Pass to truly serve low-income riders: (a) negotiate with BART to have the $35 pass usable on BART, or (b) lower the cost of the Lifeline Pass so that it’s a better deal. Muni’s Citizen Advisory Council has recommended the latter option.

198,000 San Franciscans live at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, and 60,000 of them are not elderly, disabled or under the age of 18. That means 60,000 people – many of whom are transit-dependent – are not able to get better deals on Muni than the Lifeline Pass, and it is their only option. Many of them are low-income wage earners who have multiple jobs. Now that Prop A has passed and the M.T.A. will have more resources, it is imperative to reform the pass to make our bus system more accessible for them.

Replacing Diesel Buses:

One of the exciting parts of Prop A was the “emission reduction” mandates that it put on the M.T.A. – which includes replacing much of the system’s old diesel buses with fuel-efficient, hybrid electric buses. For low-income people of color in the Outer Mission and the Excelsior, this has been a long time coming. In the past year, PODER, a non-profit community group in the Mission District, has conducted a study with the Health Department to measure the effects of diesel bus emissions on communities of color. What they’ve found is pretty staggering.

Muni will now have the resources to replace diesel buses with “zero-emission” buses – and the only question is which bus lines will be prioritized. The M.T.A. must sit down with the Health Department, PODER and other groups to ensure that communities most affected by “environmental racism” get the newest and cleanest buses. There are 18 major bus routes that serve the City’s Southeast sector – and 15 of them are still using the old diesel buses, including the 9-San Bruno (which goes to SF General Hospital), the 19-Polk, the 26-Valencia, the 52-Excelsior and the 44 (which goes to Hunters Point.)

Restoring the Defunct 15-Line:

The 15-Bus used to go from Chinatown down to Bayview, and then through the Excelsior to City College – serving some of the City’s most low-income communities. When the Third Street Light Rail opened this year, Muni discontinued the 15-Bus – but did not even wait to see if the T-line was running properly. As we know, the T-line had problems kicking off – causing a serious meltdown with angry commuters. Bayview residents were left stranded waiting for the streetcars – with no alternative to get to work.

Now that the T-line is running properly and has “replaced” the 15-Bus, it’s apparent that it’s not an adequate substitute for everyone. For starters, the 15 used to go on Stockton Street in Chinatown – so until the Central Subway gets built we will have a serious gap in service in the City’s most dense neighborhood. For now, Muni has tried to remedy this problem – by creating a new bus line along Columbus Avenue.

But more problematic is the impact that no 15-line has had on service in Bayview and the Excelsior. Unlike the new T-line, which ends in Sunnydale, the old 15-Bus continued along Geneva Avenue to the Balboa Park Station – connecting Bayview residents to important destinations such as City College. What used to be one direct bus route now requires at least one transfer – and more crowded buses along Geneva Avenue.

Even in places now serviced by the T-line, Bayview residents complain about waiting too long for the train to come and getting late for work. According to ACORN, its members who live along Third Street have reported getting threatened with job losses if they kept on arriving to work late – due to inadequate transit service. The T-line may be a quicker and more efficient way to connect Downtown with Bayview – but for many Bayview residents a local bus along Third Street served a useful purpose.

Now that Muni will get an extra $26 million a year – money that must be prioritized with actual service improvements – the MTA should restore the 15 Line that provided service for a very “transit-dependent” population.

While any public transit system cannot survive financially without more upscale riders who choose to take the bus or train to work, Muni must prioritize its new improvements – that have been made possible by Prop A – on the rider population who simply have no other alternatives. San Francisco is already an expensive City for working class people. Getting them to work on Muni shouldn’t be any more of a challenge.

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