MTA Board Takes More Service Cuts and Fee for Transfers Off the Table

3175616668_efde3ebd22.jpgTransfers aren't going anywhere (though they'll soon all be done by TransLink.) Flickr photo: Rubin 110
If today's MTA Board meeting was any indication, Muni's governing body has no appetite for additional service cuts, and charging for transfers is an idea dead on arrival.

MTA staff had included both ideas among about a dozen options to close the coming $56.4 million and $45 million budget gaps in the next two fiscal years. MTA Executive Director Nat Ford said staff had intentionally included additional service cuts (on top of a 10 percent cut approved last Friday) at the end of the list, as an option the agency would do everything in its power to avoid. But the MTA Board told him to strike it from consideration, and most of the directors seemed eager to explore other options.

"I like the idea, metaphorically, of taking the service cuts idea off the list," said MTA Board member Malcolm Heinicke. "The last round was cutting past inefficiencies and really just cutting to save money."

Director Cameron Beach asked Ford to nix the option to charge for transfers as well. "I'm not interested in paid transfers or elimination of transfers," Beach said, citing the layout of the Muni system, which is designed to require transfers for many trips.

That message apparently got through to Ford, who said MTA staff "heard transfers are off the table and service reductions are off the table."

The directors showed the most enthusiasm for extending parking meter enforcement hours and pursuing one of several ballot measures that could bring in new revenue. Two communities have written letters expressing interest in being part of a pilot parking meter hour extension program, said Ford, but Director Heinicke said it was time to move past waiting for volunteers.

"My wife couldn't find parking on Sunday in West Portal," said Heinicke, referring to the difficulty of finding a parking spot when parking meters are turned off - a benefit of extending parking meter hours on top of the new revenue for Muni. Ford said he'd have an update on a pilot program for extending parking meter hours before the Board's next meeting on March 30.

After shying away from extending parking meter hours to cover the last budget deficit, the directors seemed eager to implement several new parking fees that could be funneled towards Muni service.

Director Cameron Beach said he supports not just extending parking meter hours but also raising the commercial off-street parking tax from 25 to 35 percent and pursuing an increased vehicle license fee.

Heinicke pushed for an increase in the price of residential parking permits and disabled placards. Both would require changes to state law; Ford said he would push local representatives to lobby for that.

The MTA could also add 1,000 new meters to parts of the city that don't already have them, especially newly bustling commercial areas south of Market. Heinicke gave an impassioned plea to MTA staff to continue with that idea.

But the most impassioned speech of the meeting came from Director Bruce Oka, who called on his fellow directors to stand up to the Mayor on tough choices like extending parking meter hours. Oka lent his vote to the 10 percent service cut approved on Friday, but said he wouldn't approve any more with other options still on the table. "If the Mayor's office tells us not to, and we don't stay with what we want, then we're not really independent," he told his colleagues. "Let's do our jobs."

The Board has just over one month before it has to vote on the measures. Director Beach said that tight timeline might make it difficult to vote on a proposal to consolidate some bus stops that are too close. It's an idea that's popular with transit advocates, since it could speed up service and save money, but the MTA's staff is apparently still far from having a final proposal ready.

"It sounds great on paper, but without some level of analysis, we're not in a position to even continue with it," said Beach.

The directors also requested that MTA staff bring back more information on reducing work orders, reforming operator work rules, and potential ballot initiatives to bring in new revenue.

On March 30, the Board will vote on whether to declare a fiscal emergency so it can begin enacting cost-saving changes for the next two years. Public comment on the matter will be open until March 12.

Earlier in the meeting, the Board decided to put off a decision on approving a TransLink implementation timeline until its next meeting. The directors also finalized their decision from Friday to cut service, require a premium pass on cable cars and some express bus routes, and implement various new fees to cover a budget deficit for the remainder of the current fiscal year.