As Muni Prepares for Route Changes Saturday, Deeper Service Cuts Loom

IMG_0748_1.jpgMTA Executive Director Nat Ford briefs members of the media on upcoming changes to Muni service. Photo: Michael Rhodes
This Saturday will bring wide-ranging changes to Muni, a broad reorganization of the city's transit system that MTA Executive Director Nat Ford called the most complex service changes in a generation. But while this round of changes will be virtually net-neutral in terms of overall service and revenue, Ford said the MTA's looming $19 million mid-year budget deficit will force the agency to consider much deeper future service cuts.

"I don't think we can avoid ever taking a look at that," Ford told reporters at a briefing on the upcoming service changes. "It's something that we regret doing ... However, we have to deal with the physics of our finances."

"There's no way to avoid what is probably our largest cost driver. The Muni service is the largest cost driver for the MTA, and to deal with any deficit situation, we will have to continually look in that area."

The upcoming service changes were originally intended to help close the MTA's $129 million budget gap this spring, but the final package did not net any savings, as service cuts were balanced by enhancements. The result will be a de facto implementation of some Transit Effectiveness Project recommendations, though the agency isn't classifying the route changes as such. In total, the MTA will save about $3.2 million from adjustment to operator schedules as part of the changes, but that figure is the result of "efficiencies," not any service cuts, said Ford.

While further service cuts could be on the table, "there is no examination right now of any fare increases at all," said Ford. Muni fares were already increased in July as part of the spring budget deal, and the monthly pass rate will go up again in January.

The MTA's consideration of further service cuts comes amid the Mayor's opposition to extending parking meter hours to help bridge the agency's budget gap, and will force the MTA Board to weigh transit service cuts against a plan to reap more revenue from parking meters. As Streetsblog reported last month, the agency's community outreach on its parking meter study has been slow, and the Mayor has actively worked to scuttle its implementation. MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan noted at the time that the public is growing increasingly upset over the prospect of broad cuts to Muni, and has indicated a willingness to vote for extended parking meter hours in spite of the Mayor's opposition. It's not clear yet whether a majority of the board would join him, but as the prospect of further cuts becomes more real, the choice will certainly become starker.

For now, the MTA is still busy preparing Muni riders and operators for Saturday's service changes. Muni ambassadors in full livery of orange hats and bright yellow vests are out in force to alert riders, and the MTA has conducted extensive outreach. Ford said the agency will turn its attention to further cuts once the December 5th changes are in place.

"Right now, we've been focused on this service change," said Ford. "Once we get the dust settled on this over the next couple weeks, the next few months, then in earnest we'll really take a good, hard look at what we can do to close that $19 million gap between January and June."

Unlike this round of cuts, the next is not likely to be balanced by enhancements, Ford indicated. "Going forward, we will have to take a deeper look in terms of modifications that are probably not as productive as we want them to be."