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.

  • I’m somewhat confused. Where does the original 10 percent service cut stand? Is that still happening? How do we get that off the table, or is it too late?

  • Michael Rhodes

    @Evan, unfortunately, the original 10 percent cut is still happening. Today’s discussion was only about additional service cuts.

  • Ugh…sigh. I wish there was something we could do about that — but I guess I agree, all these other “ideas” seem to just distract from the brutal 10 percent across-the-board cuts.

    I’m about to walk into a meeting with my block neighbors where we’ll be discussing Muni, so happy I’ll have my info straight.

  • Evan, what group are you a part of? Are you sending anyone to the MUNI summit?

  • No special group. The neighbors on my block in Potrero Hill and I met once a month to discuss what’s going on in the neighborhood. If there’s something more we can do, let me know!

  • Diane

    I was walking down Valencia a few days ago, and noticed that the bus stops are painted over now that the 26 has been discontinued, but that no meters have been put in. More parking, and free.

    I notice that the Mayor has not responded to the idea of eliminating free parking for City employees, nor to the idea of reducing the car fleet and having City employees take Muni. Does he think we’re just joking around when we make these suggestions?

  • Peter S

    I’m really curious about how successful the premium pass for express buses will be. SFMTA really seems to trying to segment their customer base. It’s always struck me that there is an untapped segment of better-off San Franciscans who drive and avoid MUNI because it is MUNI (i.e. not reliable, dirty, and crowded). Might MUNI be able to capture this segment now? Is MUNI even capable of creating a premium product? Obviously, they can charge significantly higher rates to this segment of customers.

    If the expresses are now magically on time and clean, this actually might be an interesting experiment. I just hope that the local buses on the same routes don’t get shafted (leaving everyone below a given income bracket late for work). There will be a rich bus and a poor bus (but maybe the rich bus will pay for the rest of us). How I wish that we didn’t even need to think like this.

  • Diane, no EIR needed to add parking spaces, only to take them away. Chew on that.

    Peter S, they were headed towards a tiered system. I would be irate if these express buses are cleaned more regularly and come on a more frequent basis. It would just further the argument that SF is turning into an playground for the rich. “Don’t worry Pac Heights (JohnB), we’ll supply with a fresh, clean bus that’s whisk you past the poor people that stand in between you and your job. No need to smell or hear something that might not sit well with you.”

  • Oops, couple mistypes up there, but I think you get the point.

    I think I saw somewhere someone mentioned the 8x/30/45 situation between Chinatown and Market. This is a prime prime example of how the tiered system is going to cripple MUNI. the 8x provides crucial capacity through North Beach and Chinatown. If all those people wait for a 30/45 (which they will, just like they won’t ride the central subway) we’ll be seeing Stockton St become more of a clusterf*ck.

    Talking with my wife about what we are going to do when this all comes to pass (not to mention further cuts) is getting really depressing. We’ll have to start cabbing more, which means less disposable income which means less spent at local businesses and restaurants. But what do we do? We can’t continue to let our lives crumble along with MUNI, but it’s still cheaper to not own a car. If we get squeezed out, the person who replaces us WILL bring a car.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @mikesonn, a bit of good news: The 8X/8AX/8BX series will not require a premium pass.

  • I take it the that finalizing the 10% service reduction means that they are laying off 170 MUNI operators? Can you confirm? Thanks.

  • Thanks Michael, that is great news. I couldn’t imagine that corridor without the 8x.

    Still doesn’t make up for the severe cuts, but at least makes getting to Market tolerable.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @echan, 170 operator positions will be eliminated, though some of those may currently be vacant. So, the number of true layoffs could be a bit lower.

  • I’ve got to offer a breath of optimism here – this all sounds like relative sanity from the MTA. I’m just glad to hear they’re probably updating parking meter hours, reducing work orders, are seriously considering stop consolidation… finally starting to knock out some of the major illogical practices.

  • @Aaron, all those things have been discussed for over a year now as serious revenue options. They just keep asking for studies and reports with no true intention of implementing them. Hopefully you are right, but I see this as another “look over here” tactic meant to distract us from all the cuts.

    If they would have implemented the parking meters last year when the study was completed, there would have been no reason for the 10% service cuts.

  • JohnB

    Mike,

    Your comment that a premium bus service would “whisk rich people past poor people” is disingenuous. Express buses already exist – it is just that people don’t have to pay more for them. Cable cars already cost more. There are precendents.

    Do you also object to first class on aircraft, trains and ships? What about upgrades to hotel suites? Is this America or Cuba?

    We’re looking for revenue sources here and IF there is a market for people to pay $5 for a one-way trip, and IF that means more money for muni and less cars on the street, then we should consider it WHATEVER the motive of those premium passengers.

    I don’t think we can afford class envy, inverted snobbery or political correctness here.

  • Oh JohnB, to live in your lofty world. A man can dream.

    This isn’t about class envy, this is about providing a service to the people of the city and county of san francisco. Express buses are part of that service, they shouldn’t have to cost more. Raising the fares will in fact make it an exclusive MUNI enclave for the well-to-do.

    And express buses are not anywhere similar to first class on a plane or train. Express buses are for those that need to get from one end to the other as quickly as possibly. They relieve the load on local service and visa-versa. Some people only need to travel 8 blocks, while others need to travel 30. On busy corridors like Geary, it is crucial to provide both types of services for the same cost.

    There will always be a market for premium passengers, but there is also a huge market for parking and our city is doing nothing to address that. This budget has been balanced on the back of MUNI since this recession began. If all funding truly has been searched out and realized, then we can start your public transit for the rich scheme.

  • ZA

    @mikesonn – I completely agree. Anybody who has seen the 9X on the commuting schedule knows who this bus is serving.

  • I think there’s nothing wrong with charging more for express buses. Not only do they provide excellent service, but they typically go back in the other direction, which is perfectly fair justification for higher prices.

    Not that I really want to pay more for it — I’d obviously prefer if it were included — but I don’t think Muni is crazy for trying to do so.

  • Andy Chow

    The express bus service is doing just fine. The reason that I don’t favor a premium is that they are create problems for the front line crew and may divert passengers onto the local and limited service, which is already crowded. I rode on a packed 14X once. If 14X were to require a premium, some riders may opt for 14L, which is also packed. Those long distance riders on the 14L would hog the seats that could be used to serve shorter distance riders.

    As far as premium service goes, what SF should do is to issue permits to private bus/shuttle/limo operators and let them decide how to serve those potential markets. People should be able to access premium service, as long as they are not demanding disproportional public subsidy. It is a bad idea for Muni to serve the premium riders at a greater loss.

    Haven’t we learn anything from the Culture Bus experiment. People won’t pay $10 to ride on a standard Muni bus (but OK if it is privately run like the double deck tourist buses). That bus was unproductive and drew resources that could be used on other lines. If some private company want to run a bus on the same route and charge $10, that should be welcomed, because whether that business is successful or not don’t cost the public anything.

  • Andy, I can get behind that. Though not optimal, it’d provide the upper crust a way out of their cars without stifling MUNI.

  • Gregorio

    I understand the arguments in favor of the premium fastpass, but I disagree with them. Passengers riding on express and limited lines cost Muni the least amount of money. This service is more efficient for Muni to offer, so I don’t feel that taking the service should be de-incentivized at all.

    That said, the 9X was the only express bus I ever really take, so it doesn’t have much of an effect on me. Still, though, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to charge people more purely on the basis that it’s a better service being offered.

  • Andy Chow

    Muni’s historical attitude is that it ought to be the single transportation provider in the City, but that assumed that transit can be profitable, which was true back in the old days but not so now. Revenue and ridership on the busy lines cross subsidize the money-losing ones. This business model is still true for PG&E and AT&T. That why Muni and its union was so against jitney operations that take revenue from the popular lines.

    Nowadays, assuming that any and all Muni’s operation can’t ever be profitable, it would be wise not to pursue a service that can be sustainably met by private operators, as long as the quality is reasonable. Overall it help preserve transit funds and focus more on those who need transit but cannot be provided by private operators (core mainline service, service in low income areas, disabled transportation, etc).

    Recent federal regulations prohibited bus agencies to charge premium fare (beyond the highest regular fare) for sports/event service (unless no other company wants to run it). SamTrans and VTA all gave up 49ers bus service to a private company. There was some concerns that the quality would deteriorate, but overall the service was decent. For a slightly higher fare, 49ers fans get to ride on more comfortable buses with restrooms. For SamTrans and VTA, it means that they don’t have to subsidize the service. SamTrans was subsidizing a little bit for the 49ers service when it was under SamTrans, even though SamTrans charge high fares. The only ones who really got hurt are the unions that no longer be able to earn overtime on those service.

  • Alex

    @Evan: Why? By virtue of having fewer stops, an express bus can make a given run in a shorter period of time (even including deadheading back to the start of the run). The only explanation I’ve seen for why express routes are more expensive came from the MTA’s Ms. Kirshbaum. She pointed out that more drivers are needed because most express routes don’t operate all day. If the MTA could leverage more part-time drivers to fill the staffing needs for the express routes, Ms. Kirshbaum’s explanations would be rendered moot.

    IOW, the express routes are more expensive to operate now… but that’s not an intrinsic feature of express routes.

    Likewise, if the MTA was concerned about the cost of providing service, they wouldn’t have created a premium BART pass (they pay BART less than it costs the MTA to shuttle a rider around). The whole tiered pass thing stinks.

  • Regarding private transit – it does exist. The blue jitney bus runs from Caltrain to 4th/market and back – I assume he charges $2, the last time I used it the fare was $1.50 which was the same as MUNI. this guy packs them in. But it is a very specific line with very specific ridership. Supposedly there used to be many jitney lines but they disappeared – unprofitable.

    I can’t immediately predict another line that would work. Perhaps a “38 super X” – a.k.a. The BRT MUNI is already planning…

  • Alex

    At the MTA board meeting yesterday, someone brought up the Caltrain shuttle. Besides the 8 express lines, are there any other express routes that provide service not duplicated by local routes? Any other express routes that provide such significant local service?

  • Andy Chow

    The jitneys were over-regulated out of business. See this: http://tinyurl.com/ya3s45a

    If that guy that runs the Caltrain jitney decides to retire, unless TBT/DTX is constructed, the only transit connection to downtown would be Muni. With all these cuts, the only Muni choice would probably be the T.

  • Andy Chow

    You have to go to page 41 for SF’s history.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    The way things work in advanced industrialized first world democracies with functioning transit systems is:

    * the same fare work on ANY transit mode (note that this is not the same as the TransLink(tm) contractor welfare program, which simply replicates in private-profitable form existing tiered and segmented clusterfuck);

    * longer-period (multi-day, week, month, year, rather than single rider or single-hour) pass sales are STRONGLY encouraged by the tariff structure;

    * proof of payment, easy access vehicles, high-throughput transit stations and stops, and a high emphasis on minimizing the overhead of transferring between vehicles/lines/modes/systems (including timed transfers and regular period headways.)

    * improving operations is the low hanging fruit compared to to grandiose capital spending and/or continuing to throw money at proven failures.

    Implementation of these types of policies has resulted in 100% ridership growth over decade periods, almost without exception, and huge increases in the efficiency (cost per ride, cost per passenger, cost per hour) of the systems,

    Muni and MTC are, of course, heading in exactly the opposite directions on every front. Neither serving customers nor spending money efficiently or wisely are anywhere on the priority list of either organization.

  • Sprague

    Richard’s post mentions some things that aren’t discussed enough, namely the need for the same fare working “on ANY transit mode”. Many European cities have such arrangements. Zonal fares allow travel on any mode of public transit. In SF, this would let riders use Muni, Bart, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Samtrans, etc. Inter-agency transfers are usually very expensive in S.F. and this is a big impediment to wider transit use (for example, unless a rider is headed downtown or to a destination along one of the bus routes into town from an outlying county, chances are they’ll drive since the alternative is both very time consuming and expensive). If the Bay Area ever gets its act together, transit agency consolidation may also enable zonal fares that truly apply to entire zones.

  • JohnB

    Sprague,

    I think you’ve hit on a very important issue here. Other population centers that are a similar size to the Bay Area have a single, unified municipal government and a single, unified transit system. Examples are LA, NYC, Chicago, Houston.

    The Bay Area is somewhat artificially divided into 9 (?) Counties and then into God knows how many cities, each with their own governments and transit systems.

    Moreover, then in SF, you have district elections which tend to elect fringe candidates who would never get elected city-wide, let alone BA-wide.

    If we had a single, unitary Bay Area administration, it would be far more moderate than what SF currently has. And it would have a far more integrated and efficient transit system,

    I’ve no idea how we get there from here. Probably can’t be done. But it’s helpful to reflect on what might be the real fundamental issue here. Too many petty, self-serving fiefdoms with a deluded sense of self-importance.

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