Are More Service Cuts the Last Straw For a Public Fed Up With Muni?

tax_the_rich.jpgPhoto: blarfiejandro

Widespread outrage at the MTA Board, so visibly on display at today's meeting on Muni service cuts and fare increases, appears to be driving a growing surge of organizing that transit supporters hope might finally create a sustained movement with the potential to pressure the MTA into developing long-term fixes for Muni.

Most members of the public testifying at the meeting today were livid about the MTA's approach to the budget, illustrated by loud outbursts from speakers and thunderous applause by the more than 200 people who filled the overflow South Light Court at City Hall.

Long-time Muni organizers and transit wonks were hopeful the momentum that helped turn out so many people would continue beyond today.

"I'm thrilled. I think it's word of mouth, it's gotten around," said Sue Vaughan, a member of the MTA Citizens' Advisory Council and an organizer with Transit Not Traffic. "It's got a life of its own and it's gaining momentum."

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who roamed the overflow room and spoke with a number of people who gave public testimony, was awed by the turnout. "I'm incredibly impressed about the volume of people that have come out. They're well organized, and their passion is right on and felt by many of us."

"As far as I'm concerned, you've got a mini-movement that's not going to fade away."

An abundance of different groups were represented at the meeting, including advocates for improved transit, affordable housing, people with disabilities, youth, seniors, and more, as well as plenty of unaffiliated Muni riders who were deeply concerned about the MTA's proposals for balancing its budget.

Some of the testimony took on a distinctly populist tone: A number of people were angry with the recent hiring of John J. Haley as Director of Transit at a salary of more than $225,000, even as Muni operators are being asked to give concessions.

"We're saying, 'Chop from the top,'" said the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition's Frank Lara. "The problem is, this is mismanagement from these administrators. If they want to start criticizing over [operator] salaries then they should start with themselves."

Beatriz Herrera, an advocate with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), agreed that management at the MTA was creating a long-term problem that would exacerbate deficits.

"They should look at themselves before they start picking on the elderly and disability groups and people of color," said Herrera. "Working class communities here in San Francisco who ride the bus every day, who work and drive the bus every day, who clean the buses" were the people who make "mobility possible in the city," she said.

Amid Public Frustration, SPUR Presents Alternative Budget

Anticipating the need to present viable long-term solutions for Muni riders to support -- beyond simply cutting MTA Executive Director Nat Ford's salary -- SPUR brought out a budget plan of its own today.

Though the Board didn't have time to thoroughly analyze an alternative budget proposal presented at the meeting by SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, the long list of measures in SPUR's proposal promised to fix the budget without service cuts or labor concessions [PDF].

"The message is that they have options," said Metcalf, who believes that if the MTA made some of the politically difficult decisions proposed by SPUR, they would run a surplus over the next two years, rather than the projected $100 million shortfall. "Our expectation is that some of these will go away, will prove politically infeasible, but they could reject a bunch of these and still balance the budget."

Along with proposals to stop paying work orders to the SFPD and redirecting 311 calls to 511 -- measures estimated to save the agency nearly $18 million annually -- SPUR also highlighted numerous glaring deficiencies in the MTA's handling of the parking assets it controls, which would generate more than $20 million annually.

According to SPUR's alternative budget, the MTA doesn't enforce an existing garage pricing ordinance that prohibits daily and early bird rates; the agency could enhance its existing garage ordinance citywide; it should enforce parking violations around City Hall and the Department of Justice; and it should extend metering to Sundays and add new meters around City Hall and MTA controlled facilities.

MTA's Judson True hadn't had the time to thoroughly analyze the proposals and said they would be taken to Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose for further review, but acknowledged that "the people at SPUR have years and years of looking at Muni budgets and I think there are good ideas in there."

Metcalf shared the exasperation of many who gave public testimony, though he focused on the MTA Board, which he said was failing at its mandate to develop solutions like the proposals he put together. "What you do is ask staff to bring you proposals that are good," said Metcalf, who spent two months preparing the SPUR report. "That's the most minimal interpretation of your job as a Board member. You ask staff to bring you options that do the trick."

"Muni effects people's lives in a very immediate way every single day," added Metcalf. "When Muni doesn't work, San Francisco doesn't work."

Michael Rhodes contributed reporting for this story.