MTA Directors Get Another Earful on Muni Service Cuts and Fare Hikes

989154636_1263f7e3ae.jpgStormy skies are ahead for Muni. Flickr photo: fmosca
Muni's budget saga continued today as the MTA Board heard details on proposed service cuts and future deficits, prompting a growing outcry from the city's transit riders. The cuts would include eliminating ten percent of Muni service, bringing frequencies on many routes to historic lows.

More than 45 members of the public spoke at the meeting, decrying the cuts and fare increases. Many focused on a staff proposal to increase monthly discount passes to $30. The passes are available to seniors and people with disabilities, and are already set to increase from $15 to $20 in May.

Aside from service cuts and a request to the San Francisco Country Transportation Authority for $7 million, the discount pass increase would make the biggest dent in the MTA's $16.9 million end-of-year deficit. The agency could reap an extra $1 million from the increase, but it's not likely to be popular with the Board of Supervisors, who will vote on any fare increases.

Dozens of speakers testified against the measure, including Bob Planthold of the Senior Action Network, who called the idea "a war on the disabled and seniors."

"You're leaving money on the table by ignoring the parking meter experiment," said Planthold. "That's cowardice."

The ARC of San Francisco, a service and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, organized a large group to speak at the meeting. 

Ernestine Patterson, a Muni rider who is visually impaired, told the Board the changes would affect her independence. "Doubling the amount we pay for fast passes truly removes the wonderful feeling of independence I have always enjoyed, to be able to get on the bus to go when I want and how often I want," she said.

MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford prefaced the meeting with an assertion that the MTA has limited options. "At this point we can only provide the service we can afford," he said.

Still, the public testimony left several of the directors wondering if there weren't other options to be explored. "It's hard to hear a lot of these comments without pressing for some alternative," said Director Malcolm Heinicke. Like many of the directors, Heinicke expressed particular concern about the discount pass hike.

He also added his voice to the list of MTA directors interested in revisiting an extension of parking meter hours. MTA staff had initially set out to meet with businesses and identify a corridor where a pilot meter extension program might be welcomed. Ford said there are individual businesses that are amenable to the idea, but none of the neighborhood business groups have expressed an interest.

Despite pressure from the Mayor to kill the parking plan, Heinicke joined Directors Cameron Beach, Jerry Lee, and Bruce Oka in pressing MTA staff to at least identify a corridor for a pilot program.

Each of those directors has reportedly been told to keep quiet on the parking proposal, but Oka reasserted his independence today. "I said at the last meeting everything has to be on the table," he told his colleagues. "I'm not backing off from that."

MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan related a meeting called by Mayor Newsom this Tuesday to prod all city chairs to act fast on budget dilemmas. "We've all pointed out things we don't like," said Nolan, encouraging the Board to deal with the deficit without delay. "But this Board is going to have to make a very tough decision, because it is our obligation to manage the budget, to balance the budget."

Nolan did criticize the plan to reduce overnight owl bus service to once per hour. That prompted Ford to explain that with such low service frequencies, Muni would actually publish schedules for routes that run less than every 20 minutes - something it hasn't done in years. By running at hourly intervals, MTA staff hopes the owl schedule will be easier for riders to memorize.

Even with a few of the directors grumbling about the service cuts, and the Board of Supervisors posturing about opposing fare increases, the MTA appears to be rolling toward approving the majority of the deficit proposals, with few modifications.

That isn't settling well with many of Muni's riders.

"The reason why we have boards like this is to have intelligent conversations on transportation policy," said Eric Chase, author of Transbay Blog. "It would be a shame for this Board to simply adopt and rubber-stamp Mayor Newsom's extremely poor understanding of the Transit First policy in this city."

There will be several town hall meetings before the Board votes on service cuts on February 16. They will be held on February 6 and February 9 at MTA headquarters, One South Van Ness Avenue. You can also let the Mayor and MTA Board know what you think of the cuts by emailing them at gavin.newsom@sfgov.org and mtaboard@sfmta.com.