Where is the MTA Board’s Leadership on the Budget Crisis?

IMG_2775.jpgMTA Chair Tom Nolan.

Aside from Malcolm Heinicke’s proposal to tax rental cars at SFO — which was apparently shot down by legal staff — no member of the MTA Board of Directors has offered any ideas for generating new revenue, other than toying or saying yay or nay to recommendations presented by staff, to help the agency limp out of the red ink.

Granted, finding new sources of revenue is an issue transit agencies everywhere are grappling with, but Muni has been historically underfunded, and while they keep proving they’re no experts on the issues, the current members of the MTA Board are certainly no strangers to them. Why, then, are they so reticent to offer up their own ideas for solving the current $129 million deficit? And does their lack of bold leadership point to a fundamental flaw in how the MTA is governed?

Even Chair Tom Nolan, at the end of the budget discussion at yesterday’s Board meeting and public hearing, expressed concerns directors didn’t provide proper guidance to staff to balance the budget by next Thursday, when the Board will hold a special meeting to adopt a final spending plan. He had urged them at the beginning to be “as thoughtful as possible.”

“I’m not sure we’ve established anywhere near sufficient direction to the staff to come back with a balanced budget.”

“I
think most of us here tonight suggested things to take away from the
plan…and not filled them in with the other
side of it. I’m not sure we’ve established anywhere near sufficient
direction to the staff to come back with a balanced budget by next
Thursday,” said Nolan, who then asked for feedback from Chief Financial
Officer Sonali Bose.

“I think I’ve heard some consistency
among the directors so I think that I have enough guidance to bring
back something by the 30th,” she responded.

“A balanced budget?” asked Nolan.

“A balanced budget.”

Earlier, in public testimony, Livable City
Executive Director Tom Radulovich, a member of the Transit Justice Coalition, reminded the Board that the City Charter
demands that the MTA come up with new sources of revenue.

“The City Charter says this body, the MTA
Board, shall diligently seek
new sources of revenue for this agency,” he said. “We need to be strategic when
thinking about revenue. We can’t just do it in the months leading up to
a budget adoption.”

MTA directors, if they wanted to, could take their case directly to the voters, but they’ve refused to do that. Last year, they rejected a set of recommendations for tax increases to fund the MTA, including raising the utility users tax. And they haven’t bothered to seriously consider “out of the box” ideas, like charging a fee for residential curb cuts.

The MTA, under pressure from the Mayor’s office, also nixed a plan to raise parking citation fines, which would have generated $4.8 million in much needed revenue. Directors have also not been aggressive about cost-saving service improvements the MTA could easily implement under the declaration of fiscal emergency it voted for yesterday — such as rolling out bus stop spacing recommendations now instead of later, or as Radulovich suggested, painting bus lanes so drivers get a clear message they are only for transit.

Part of the problem is the MTA Board is only part-time. Each member gets paid $150 a meeting. Some advocates and electeds, including Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, have said it might be time to consider having the MTA Board elected. No member of the current MTA Board has offered up a single measure, something each director has the power to do.

Many of the proposals that have emerged from staff — namely fare hikes and service cuts — are not sitting well with the public, or with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who has introduced a resolution (PDF) that threatens to derail the final MTA budget. Supes have the power to reject the budget with a super majority vote of seven members.

Radulovich points out that not sending MTA Executive Nat Ford or CFO Sonali Bose to the Budget and Finance Committee hearing on work orders “showed a real contempt for the Board of Supes.”

“They really set it up for some kind of confrontation with the Board,” he said. “But at this point I have a little more confidence in the Board of Supervisors than I do with the MTA Board. Hopefully, they’ll fix it. We’ll see.”

  • rzu

    You are right that the MTA board is no stranger to the issues of underfunded transit. Unfortunately, the so-called “Blue Ribbon” panel that the mayor convened way back in 2007 to examine MUNI’s funding problems failed to come up with any solutions. In fact, they did little other than take options that were politically unpalatable to the mayor’s allies off the table.

    I attended a few of the panel’s meetings toward the end of their process and was appaled by the lack of vision. I wrote this article about it over a year ago and am sad to see that little has changed:

    http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=5458

    Except one thing … amid the balloning city-wide (indeed state- and nation-wide as well) budget crisis, activists have lost their focus on MUNI issues and have been unable to articulate a way forward independent of the MTA. The idea of an elected MTA body is a good one, as activists seem to be better at focusing on winning elections, and an elected body is much easier to keep accountable.

  • Progressives are good at winning district supervisor elections in progressive districts with good candidates.

    Some progressives and environmentalists are good at winning citywide ballot measure campaigns sometimes.

    Any ballot measure needs to be well thought out beforehand and have a substantial coalition behind it with a proven track record of winning elections.

    Cobbling crap together during the contrived Charter Amendment process that gave us Prop A is not a good idea if we want to win.

    IIRC Prop A started at 55% +-2.5% and ended up at 55% with no significant campaign against it.

    -marc

  • So before this talk of electing the MTA board goes too far, there are alternatives that combine elections and appointments. In New York, the MTA board has several non-voting members including the Citizens Advisory Council and label.

    Down south, Los Angeles’ MTA board is made up of 14 members including 5 members of the board of supervisors, the LA city mayor, 2 LA city council members, 4 representatives selected from different sectors of the county excluding the city of LA itself, and one non-voting member appointed by the governor. They also make $150 pre meeting, but have also merged their funding authority with the transit agency to cut out a lot of wasted time, energy and money taken in the back and forth.

    Here, the SFMTA is separate from the County Transit Authority (CTA, or TA, our other transit agency) which has a board made up of the SF board of Supervisors and takes away a lot of funding that could go to Muni and f MTA projects like the bike program in order to fund their own projects (like Geary and Van Ness BRT, those endless studies of Market Street, etc.) or the money just gets sucked up by all the time, staff, outside consultants, and all the other resources it takes on both sides to actually get the money directed to the SFMTA to them.

  • rzu

    I agree that there are a lot of potential negatives with an elected board. All I’m saying is that the current set up is not working particularly well and we need to start talking alternatives.

  • We have negatives with the current appointment system, I worry that in reaction we’d go to another extreme and the conversation will become polarized.

    I’m very curious about how different arrangements have worked out. The LAMTA has adjusted their board makeup at least once since the merger, but I also find them appealing because they put a strong emphasis on customer service and the customer experience and seem willing to make the expensive investments up front that take a while to pay off. Just look at any of the Streetfilms about LA, but that board setup may not be the right one for us.

  • i’m trying to determine an estimate for how many hours a week tom nolan and other board members put in, carrying out their official SFMTA duties. do you have such an estimate?