MTA Director Heinicke Questions Use of Streetcar Rehab Funds

historic_streetcar.jpgFlickr photo: Ame Otoko

It may be a moot point now that funds are allocated, but MTA Director Malcolm Heinicke today questioned whether the MTA should be spending $18.7 million to enter into an agreement with Brookville Equipment Corporation to refurbish 16 historic streetcars. Some of his comments seemed to echo a Streetsblog piece a few months ago questioning whether those streetcars keep Muni stuck in the past.

"Don’t get me wrong, I love the F Line cars," he said at the MTA Board meeting. "[But] does it make sense to do this? What else could come of this money?" He added that the MTA has a new deficit approaching the same figure as the refurbish, and asked whether it was possible to forestall the project.

The MTA’s deputy chief operating officer Samual Lau explained that during
summer months the F line ridership "is intensely high" and the
refurbish would be "especially helpful for tourist seasons." A public commenter argued it was long overdue and "necessary for the health and safety of everyone who rides the F line."

MTA Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose chimed in that the grant from the Federal Transit Administration could not be spent on anything else. "These funds were applied for this specific purpose. We’d have to go back to the granting partner and ask that these funds be reallocated."

  • That’s one thing that I really dislike in the “what else could this money be spent for?” question. When the FTA grants funds, it’s a) generally an 80/20 split, which means that there has to be a local match of 20% on whatever costs you incur and b) the FTA has doled it out these funds for the specific item which the agency applied for (5307/5309/5311/etc. funds on operations side, capital investments on the capital side).

    The FTA has controls in place to make sure the money they grant is used on the specific project it was granted for. So it’s useless saying the Central Subway money should be spent on Geary and that refurbishing streetcars should be spent on plugging the budget hole, unless you plan on refusing the already approved FTA funds and going back to the drawing board asking for funds for a different project. Even then, you can’t just redirect. Currently, FTA is on the hook for most of the capital projects, but not the funds that the agencies need to operate – hence the argument of agencies being able to buy more trains or buses, but not having the funds to operate them.

    At most, you can redirect the local funds but that’s clearly a less significant amount, and in the case of the MTA budget, a tiny piece of the budget pie.

  • SfResident

    “the grant from the Federal Transit Administration could not be spent on anything else”

    Urm… so it’s money from a federal grant that (presumably) can’t be used for anything else. So it doesn’t actually cost the MTA anything? And, thus, it’s not contributing to the budget deficit. Why is this even an issue?

    I really don’t get these anti F line posts. Seems like the F line does a bunch of great things for the city including:

    1) Reduces congestion on muni metro – it especially gets the tourist who don’t know how to put coins in the damn turnstiles off the metro – big win for us commuters.

    2) Provides a backup for when muni metro breaks down (saved my ass before).

    3) Lets tourists enjoy public transit (a huge long-term benefit – if somebody returns from a trip to SF raving about our sexy streetcars they’re more likely to support transit infrastructure in their city).

    4) Make the ugly scar that is Market Street slightly more visually palatable.

    5) Gives tourists who ride it a transfer that may make them more likely to use public transit to explore the rest of the city.

    Additionally, what are the consequences of not refurbishing these things? It is a liability issue? Would it mean fewer F line cars on the streets (thus upping the refurb costs if/when we were to eventually take them out of mothball status)?

    I wonder how much of the frustration towards the F line is simple SF-style condescension for anything that the tourists like.

  • @SFResident: According to the Board’s agenda, funding is cobbled together from 15 different sources, combining federal, regional, and local sources. That’s 15 separate sources who’d have to all agree to reallocating the funding. Actually some of that funding isn’t specific to this project, but is still dedicated to the historic maintenance program so at best it could only be used for a different restoration project.

    You are dead on about the consequences of taking no action. The current situation is that we’ve got 16 PCCs which have been the core of the F-line fleet for 18 years and not only are they getting more difficult and expensive to maintain, years of cutbacks mean fewer mechanics to do the work. The 16 streetcars to be repaired under this contract will be the relief so the current fleet can undergo restoration themselves.

    What’s worse is they are kept outdoors (not what they were designed for, and while there is a shed now finally underway, it’s taken 20 years to get approved and funded during which they could have been sheltered to reduce wear) the rain eventually leaks into them and this year I’m told it got so bad there was a week only 3 of them were in service. Busses substituted, but that just puts wear and tear on another vehicle and the busses are in pretty bad shape themselves. In fact, $16 million in stimulus funding is being used to restore 60 busses which are only 10 years old themselves and that only buys another 5 years or so out of them because busses just don’t last as long as these 1940s streetcars.

    The other problem is that busses don’t carry as many passengers, nor do they attract as many riders. This past winter, when substitute busses which when mixed with the streetcars which were in service, the busses were sometime near-empty while the streetcars were as packed as every.

  • MTA director Heinicke seems to be the MTA go to guy for stupid public pronouncements that are empty of meaning, context, or sense. How is it this guy is even qualified to be on the MTA and yet supposedly we the public are too stupid to vote for MTA board members (but we can vote for judges, the rights of others, and for Supervisors and Presidents?)

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