Advocates, Supervisors Push for Alternatives to Proposed Muni Service Cuts

97744120_e2290ca682.jpgWith the MTA proposing deep service cuts to Muni and $5 fares on historic streetcars, transit advocates are concerned about where the city's transit system is headed. Flickr photo: Thomas Hawk.
A proposal to drastically cut Muni service while raising some fares has angered and energized transit riders in advance of Tuesday's MTA Board meeting, and has left advocates and elected officials in search of alternative measures to fill the agency's $16.9 million budget gap. Proposals are starting to pour in from advocates as well as members of the Board of Supervisors, who currently have limited control over such service cuts.

One proposal would address that very issue. Supervisor David Campos told the Chronicle he hopes to put a measure on the November ballot that would give the Board of Supervisors control over three of the seats on the seven-member MTA Board, which is currently appointed entirely by the Mayor. The proposal is similar to one suggested by Supervisor John Avalos last year, which would have given the Board of Supervisors say over three MTA Board members, with the Mayor retaining control over three members. Voters would elect the seventh member.

Campos has not offered details of his plan yet, including whether the public might elect one member, but he said the proposed service cuts reflect deeper problems with the agency. "There appears to be a systematic problem with Muni and change has to begin at the top with the MTA Board," Campos told the Chronicle.

Susan King, a transit advocate who works at Livable City, said changing the way the MTA Board is chosen is part of the solution. While the current system was intended to "depoliticize" the MTA, said King, transportation shouldn't be removed from the political process. "Transportation should be a political issue. It affects the very core of people's ability to survive," she said. "The voters and the people who use the roads in San Francisco, who also vote, need to have a bigger voice."

The MTA's recurring budget crises have highlighted the agency's long-term need for more stable funding sources, but the current focus is on finding a way to avert this round of cuts. As a near-term solution, King and Walk SF President Manish Champsee both think extended parking meter hours should be part of the equation. "I understand the Mayor is opposed to that, but I think he also has to understand the devastating impact the existing service cuts and existing fare increases have had on a lot of people," said Champsee.

"They need to phase that in," said King. "Maybe not some of the things like enforcing parking until midnight, but they need to do parking on Sundays and they need to do that immediately and say 'our backs are against the wall, we don't have any other choices. It's either you guys or the transit riders.'"

King would also like to see the MTA revise its policies on free disabled parking placards, free parking in parks, the price structure of residential parking permits, and citations for people who illegally drive in transit-only lanes. Another option is to add a tax to downtown parking garages to make up the cost of PCOs who routinely are forced to direct traffic at rush hour.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), said he's already directed TA staff to move quickly to assess another part of the MTA's proposal to close its deficit, which would entail the TA transferring $7 million in funds directly to the MTA. "My goal is to try to be as supportive as possible," said Dufty. "Obviously, Muni is hemorrhaging. If we can help fund some of the maintenance, some of the large supplies, some of the hard costs in the maintenance, that's something we need to step up to do. That's kind of the top priority."

Dufty also would like to see a more nuanced approach to the service cuts. "Maybe we should look at the low-performing lines and focus the cuts there rather than the key lines that are carrying the overwhelming majority of riders every day."

As for averting the cuts, Dufty, citing the city's Transit First policy, said he thinks it's time for the MTA to revisit the proposal to sell taxi medallions, which could bring in millions for the agency. Would Dufty now support extending parking meter hours? "Where I'm open to it is, I think the MTA is saying there may be neighborhoods that actually want it, and I would be more comfortable with that," Dufty said.

Though the December 2009 service changes went relatively smoothly, and may have given the MTA Board a false sense of confidence about future service cuts, there are plenty of signs that riders and activists don't see this round of cuts the same way. "I think a lot of people are angry and they're going to show up and tell the MTA Board that," said Champsee.

In a comment on Streetsblog's original story on the proposed cuts, Fran Taylor of the community group CC Puede warned that angry riders and activists should focus on the real forces behind service cuts as they gear up for this afternoon's MTA Board meeting. "The only way to fight this latest assault on public transportation is to work with the union, include all the riders, and develop strategies that transform the disruption these proposals represent to us as individuals into disruptions to business as usual for our attackers," wrote Taylor. "We need sit-ins, pickets, serious actions, and we need the Muni workers acting with us. Stop insulting them -- they've got a tough job and deserve every penny they get."

Livable City's King also thinks a collaborative approach is the best bet for saving Muni from a deep gutting of service. "I think it needs to be a really strong and united force of progressives, social justice advocates, alternative transportation advocates, labor - because the bus drivers are going to get more abuse - and everyone pulling together and saying no, this is not acceptable."

MTA Board meeting, Tuesday, at 2 p.m. in San Francisco City Hall, Room 400. The budget discussion is Item 11 on the agenda, and there will be a chance for the public to comment.