MTA Parking Meter Study Outreach Moves Slowly, Despite Budget Woes

The MTA parking meter extension study, and the recommendations to extend meters past 6 pm on weekdays and all day Sundays, which Mayor Gavin Newsom strongly opposes, is being circulated to business groups and community stakeholders throughout the city, though the pace of setting up meetings is underwhelming and MTA staff have no schedule for bringing the matter before its Board of Directors anytime in the near future, raising the prospect that the agency will have to balance its significant mid-year budget deficit on the backs of its riders, again.

MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan said he had heard nothing from MTA Chief Nat Ford since the last MTA Board meeting on October 20th, though he hoped for an update at today's meeting. He also said there had been no discussion among board members about whether or not they would support extending meters, particularly as they continue to get pressure from the Mayor and business groups like the Chamber of Commerce to shelve the proposal for a sunnier economy.

"What I find is that people at first are very upset about the notion of paying evenings and Sundays," said Nolan, explaining that the majority of emails he has received from the public have been negative. "The real question is what are we going to do about Muni? It is so important for this city. When it's put in that context, people understand the problem [and understand] the alternative could be much worse."

MTA apokesperson Judson True said the agency has conducted 11 outreach meetings with various "groups" since the October 20th MTA Board presentation, including meetings in Supervisor Michaela Alioto-Pier's 2nd District and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd's 7th District, both considered to be more hostile to the proposal. When asked how many people the MTA has met with in these meetings, True would not specify that. When asked whether the number was 20 or 2,000, True said, "Somewhere between the two."

"We continue to attend community meetings and talk about the study and proposal," said True. "We continue to hear the same sorts of responses as we did at the board. We don't have a schedule to bring this issue before the board."

When asked whether the MTA has been pressured by the Mayor's Office to kill the study, True said, "The same skepticism about the proposal that existed when this came out, exists now."

Despite a proposal by the Chamber of Commerce to coordinate a comprehensive outreach meeting of its membership, the MTA has yet to take up the offer, according the the Chamber's Senior Vice President for Public Policy, Jim Lazarus.

The decision over extending meter hours will likely come down to MTA Chair Nolan and his resolve for confronting an issue the mayor who appointed him clearly disdains. Nolan said he wasn't concerned about the political reaction if he betrayed Mayor Newsom's wishes and said, "We're all in fixed terms over there; we can't be removed, except by cause."

This resolve clearly flies in the face of concerns Nolan conveyed to Streetsblog in an interview in July, when he admitted he worries about angering Newsom and what effect that would have on his ability to maintain good graces for his non-profit, Project Open Hand. Newsom has also summarily requested resignations of board members who disagree with him in the past, as happened to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum nearly two years ago.

Whether Nolan will risk the political fallout is uncertain, though he acknowledged that the public is growing increasingly upset as it understands the scope of the Muni service cuts that go into effect December 5th. Those cuts, along with service enhancements meant to negate the impact, were negotiated in May in a budget deal between Mayor Newsom and Board of Supervisors Chair David Chiu that prevented Chiu from rejecting the MTA budget. Neither Chiu nor the Mayor seem to want to embrace a parking proposal they see as toxic.

That leaves Nolan holding the bag and compels him to make the unenviable choice between balancing the budget with the help of increased meter revenue (and the attendant political backlash) or balancing it with more service cuts and fare increases.

"People are just beginning to realize what [service cuts] mean to them," said Nolan. "It would be nice to make everybody happy, but my job is to do everything to make the system work for the vast majority of people."