Mayor Newsom’s State of the City Address Breezes Over Muni

newsom.jpgMayor Newsom delivers the State of the City address. Image: SFGTV
For anyone still looking for bold action from the Mayor to improve the city's transit system and rescue it from financial calamity, last night's State of the City speech didn't offer any hope. The Mayor did apparently defy his staff, though, including Muni briefly in his speech - a two-minute discussion buried 70 minutes into his 81-minute address.

The Mayor took the opportunity to tout Muni's improved on-time performance, reduced crashes, and increased ridership last year, while praising the data-driven approach the MTA took to service changes in December. But beyond voicing confidence that Transit Effectiveness Project data would help the agency close a remaining $22 million mid-year budget gap less painfully, the Mayor offered no plan to get the agency back on solid ground financially and spare the city from further service cuts.

Apparently Newsom's staff considered it a political no-win situation to bring up Muni at all.

"Speaking of data, the Muni system is being informed, and the changes at Muni are being informed by data," said Newsom, backing into the topic. "I should not -" the Mayor began, before interrupting himself. "We had a big debate in my office. They said, 'Don't bring up Muni. You can't win.' [Former mayor Willie Brown] is not smiling, because he knows intimately that you cannot win on this topic."

Nevertheless, Newsom was eager to boast about Muni's record on-time performance, despite his apparent awareness of many riders' incredulity. "I hesitate to say this, but Muni had a record on-time performance year last year. It did. Just the facts," said Newsom, before listing stats on reduced collisions, including an overall drop of 18.4 percent in fiscal year 2009.

Newsom declined to cite a more concerning statistic: in the first quarter of fiscal year 2010, which ended in November, Muni's scheduled adherence actually dropped 1.1 percent from the previous quarter, which itself had dropped 0.1 percent from the quarter before (report PDF). In fact, Muni has not posted an on-time performance improvement for over half a year, with a degradation in service driven by a sharp drop in trolley coach on-time performance and a flat-lining of motor coach performance.

In another concerning sign, unscheduled absences among drivers actually got worse in fiscal year 2009, shooting up to 14.3 percent from 11 percent in 2008, the highest numbers Muni has reported in at least five years. Late pull-outs by operators were also up in the first quarter of 2010, to 0.8 percent versus 0.5 percent in both fiscal year 2008 and 2009.

None of this is good news, and it undermines Newsom's claim that the system is "improving" - which may have been true six months ago but doesn't seem to hold as of December. The really bad news, though, is that things are about to get much worse without some new source of revenue, and Newsom, the only person who might have the political clout to make that happen, isn't proposing anything. Instead, he's hoping the next round of cuts will proceed as splendidly as the first round did.

"You know, we made big service changes on December 5, all informed by data through this Transit Effectiveness [Project], and the good work of the Controller's office and the support of all members of the Board of Supervisors," said Newsom. "And we will be making tough choices. We've got a $22 million remaining shortfall, Nat Ford and his team. But they'll be informed by real data, not anecdote. And that's the big shift and the big change that gives me confidence that these numbers can continue to get better."

Whether Newsom is simply not paying close attention or is seeking to obfuscate the real challenges, the next round of service cuts are not likely to go well, for the simple reason that - unlike the first round - they won't be budget-neutral. And while Newsom hailed the creation of "green-collar jobs" ceaselessly in his speech, the loss of hundreds of the greenest jobs in the city - MTA workers - didn't get a mention.

Nor, surprisingly, did the popular Pavement to Parks program, the expansion of Sunday Streets, or the first bike infrastructure upgrades in years. By contrast, an ambitious program to catch up on hundreds of millions of dollars in street maintenance did make the cut, and the Mayor seems to have some zeal for pursuing new funds for that program.

Muni, however, has not proven to be a political winner for Newsom, and it seems he's not inclined to focus his last two years in office on getting the city's transportation backbone onto solid financial footing. Those "tough choices" Newsom refers to seem to be tough choices not for drivers but for transit riders, who may need to remind the Mayor that they constituted a higher percentage of commuters than motorists did last year, and are happy to make his last two years in office far from pothole-free.