Stop Spacing Plan on the Back Burner; Will Muni Let a Crisis go to Waste?

3236115280_ba9536352c.jpgBringing Muni's stop spacing in line with its stated policies could mean shorter travel times - and less service reduction. Flickr photo: frankfarm
Consolidating Muni stops that are too close to meet the MTA's own spacing standards could speed up travel times for riders and save the cash-strapped agency millions of dollars annually. But in a twisted development that typifies the MTA's current budget crisis, the agency says its staff is too busy cutting service to finish a proposal that could lessen those service cuts.

Back in June, Streetsblog reported that Muni could begin consolidating bus stops by February 2010 if all went according to schedule. Needless to say, all has not gone according to schedule. MTA Staff, led by service planning and Transit Effective Project manager Julie Kirschbaum, was scheduled to deliver detailed spacing plans to the agency's Board of Directors in October, with public hearings to follow in November and December.

Instead, Kirschbaum was busy finalizing a proposal for sweeping service changes during that time, which she delivered in early November. Arguably, it was a worthy use of the agency's time and resources, even aside from the pressure to balance its budget. Portions of the TEP were implemented without a major fight, and overall service hours remained virtually even while a small savings was squeezed out of efficiencies in operator schedules.

Before Kirschbaum could catch her breath on the "good cuts," however, the MTA was scrambling to fix another budget gap, this time requiring a round of "bad cuts" that would chop Muni service by a full ten percent.

Those plans were out the door and in public view by last month, followed by a public outcry so spirited that it just may give rise to a proper Muni riders union. The MTA Board will vote on the proposal later this month. Though initially pegged as a $28 million cut in service, recent union negotiations could lessen the blow. Either way, Kirschbaum is tied up with a task far from the lofty goals she was was hired to implement with the TEP, and the MTA is preparing to cut service in a way that has no discernible upside to riders.

Meanwhile, bus stop consolidation sits on the back burner, waiting its time while more draconian but simpler measures proceed full-steam ahead. The MTA projected it could save $200,000 on the 9-San Bruno alone, and might save as much as $5 million system-wide if one in ten stops were removed, according to rough calculations by former SPUR transportation director Dave Snyder.

The MTA hasn't discussed bus stop consolidation publicly in half a year, but agency spokesperson Judson True said it's still very much something the MTA is talking about internally. When asked why such a plan didn't appear in MTA CFO Sonali Bose's recent presentation on the budget for the next two fiscal years (PDF), True said the presentation wasn't meant to outline all the agency's expenditure reduction options.

"We haven't talked about the solutions for the next two years yet," said True. Streetsblog has requested a preliminary set of recommendations for stop consolidations from the MTA, but has yet to receive such a document.

The (very roughly calculated) $5 million figure would translate to the cost of saving about two percent of Muni service. Like the recent operator union negotiations and the "TEP-informed" service changes in December, it's an example of the kind of net positive option for the agency that might be easier to enact under the pressure of a budget crisis, but one that will benefit riders and the agency's bottom line alike, even in better economic times.

Presenting a bus stop consolidation proposal now, amid broad service cuts, does run the risk of appearing to the public to be a service reduction plan instead of a transit improvement plan. And budget crisis or not, the MTA faces concerns that changes in spacing could adversely affect seniors, the disabled and low-income riders if done without care. But done right, Muni just might be able to offer a silver lining in the next round of service cuts by increasing bus speeds systemwide.