Public Turns out in Force for MTA Budget Discussion

by Eric Schaefer on February 2, 2005

In a four and one-half hour long meeting yesterday, San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Authority (MTA) Board of Directors discussed options for closing its budget deficit for fiscal year 2006 and heard nearly fifty public comments on those options. According to the MTA’s Deputy Executive Director Stewart Sunshine, who presented a report of the agency’s budget options to the board, that deficit stands at $57.3 million. Executive Director Michael Burns asked for direction from the board and said that a proposal “with substance to it” would be put to the board on February 15th.

Mr. Sunshine’s presentation cited lost one-time federal and state funds ($33.8M), salary and benefit increases ($12.6M), increased fuel costs ($3.1M), the failure of previous tax measures and other unanticipated costs to account for the deficit. After the presentation director Peter Mezey said “we have a structural problem.”

Options laid out to close the deficit over the short term include increasing the base cash fare by 25 or 50 cents, eliminating the BART Fast Pass deal, increasing rates at garages and parking meters and raising the price of Residential Parking Permits to $50. Also suggested were introducing charges for transfers, surcharges for express bus service, eliminating the token discount and “restructuring” service routes.

According to Mr. Sunshine’s figures, the assortment of parking and garage fees would bring in $13.4M, eliminating free transfers and discount programs would bring $20.1M, and a base fare increase would bring an extra $12-27M for fiscal year 2006. “Schedule adjustments” and “route restructuring” could bring an additional $15M. After the budget presentation, Chairwoman Cleopatra Vaughns said that it was obvious that any solution “has to hurt all of us.”

Attendance at the meeting, which began with a brief closed session, filled both the main hearing room and an overflow room, where the public watched the meeting on closed circuit television. Though many people left as the meeting dragged on, 43 speakers told the board, in no uncertain terms, that they opposed any increase in fares. Speakers represented many organizations, neighborhoods and constituencies, but all of them asked the board to remember that San Francisco’s poor are dependent on transit and would be hit hard by any fare increase. James Collins, an SRO resident, even accused the MTA of “robbery” with pen and paper. Nearly all of them pushed the board to solve its problems with some combination of automobile oriented taxes and fees, or proposed other solutions like an increased license fee and a crackdown on fare dodgers. Many speakers also submitted petitions to the board.

Jose Alfarro of the Day Labor Program reminded the board, through a translator, that immigrants in the Mission district working irregular jobs are especially dependent on reliable and cheap transit and said that in the Mission Muni is called a “gato gordo” or “fat cat.” Several other Mission and Chinatown residents, speaking in broken English or through translators, echoed his sentiments.

Several of the speakers identified themselves and their organizations as members of or sympathizers with the newly formed Coalition for Transit Justice. Casey Mills of the CTJ declared that in the last month “the riders of San Francisco have organized” around a platform calling dependable urban transit a “basic human need and right.”

Much of the comment slammed the board for not planning sufficiently over the last five years. Bib Planthold, of Senior Action Network, accused the MTA of “negligence” for failing to author ballot measures to prop up its funding. Richard Marquez of Mission Agenda and the CTJ quoted the City Charter that says the MTA must “diligently pursue” revenue apart from its fares and challenged them to “dare to do the unthinkable” by pushing to levy taxes of downtown businesses. His remarks, and others suggesting downtown taxes, were greeted with scattered applause by the crowd.

When public comment finished, Ms. Vaughns thanked those who spoke and invited discussion by the board. Vaughns also said “It’s going to come down to service deep it will be, I don’t know.” Mr. Burns responded to questions from other directors by saying that his staff was “looking at the things we control” e.g. fares, service and parking fees and said that after the failure of Propositions J and K last fall, “going to the ballot is not a sure thing.” Director Peter Mezey said that although tax measures had failed previously and he could not rule out short term fare increases, the MTA “owes a duty to give it a shot.”

The MTA will vote on a final, balanced budget on February 28th. The board did not discuss plans to close this fiscal years deficit of at least $15M.

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