Board of Supervisors Rejects Muni Service Cuts Appeal

IMG_1811.jpgDavid Pilpel, the appellant, speaks before the Board of Supervisors. Photo: Michael Rhodes

The Board of Supervisors rejected an appeal today that would have halted the 10 percent cut in Muni service that's set to go into effect May 1.

By a 7-4 vote, the supervisors affirmed the Planning Department's determination that the service cuts are statutorily exempt from environmental review since they're covered by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's declaration of fiscal emergency.

David Pilpel, a regular at SFMTA Board meetings, had appealed the service cuts' exemption from environmental review, arguing that the SFMTA isn't a publicly owned transit agency but a city department, that the service reductions did not receive public hearings and that the SFMTA's budget shortfall is a chronic problem and not a short-term crisis.

"This is a known, predictable and preventable problem. This is not brand new," Pilpel told the supervisors during a hearing today.

The Planning Department responded that the SFMTA had met all the criteria for exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act, and that the decision wasn't on the merits of cutting service, but on whether the SFMTA had followed procedure.

"For the Planning Department this is very much a black-and-white issue: you either meet the statutory exemption requirements or you don't," said the Planning Department's Viktoriya Wise.

Sonali Bose, the SFMTA's Chief Financial Officer, said the law allowing exemptions from environmental review was created for just such an occasion. "We believe it's very clear the MTA met the standard," said Bose. "We did not have enough revenue to meet our expenses."

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd ardently supported that position. "Does it make sense for a city to have to spend 6-8 months and million of dollars on an [environmental impact report] every time they have to make service cuts?" asked Elsbernd.

Most of the supervisors agreed with that conclusion, with John Avalos, David Campos, Chris Daly and Eric Mar dissenting. After directing an intense line of questions at Planning Department and SFMTA staff, Campos said he wasn't satisfied that the SFMTA had held proper public hearings for the cuts.

Supervisor Daly argued that the Board of Supervisors should do everything in its power to stop transit cuts, given the environmental impact of cutting transit service. "If we cut transit, we're cutting everything that is environmental about us," said Daly. "If I'm wrong on the law, fine, I'd rather go to court and get sued and lose."

But Campos and Daly failed to muster the six votes needed to support the appeal, with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu breaking from his progressive allies on the vote. "It would be the easy thing to do, but I think our job is to follow the law and call the balls and strikes as we see them," said Chiu. "I think in this case the law is clear and it makes sense."

In the end, the supervisors gave kudos to Pilpel's meticulous appeal for its "extreme creativity" (as Chiu phrased it) and to Pilpel for his dedication to transit, but it wasn't enough to stop what Pilpel called the deepest Muni service cuts in modern history. The agency's board voted in February to enact the cuts to help balance its budget through the end of the current fiscal year.

Still, while Chiu opposed using the appeal process to block the current round of cuts, he told his colleagues he'd oppose the SFMTA's budget for the coming two fiscal years if the SFMTA Board doesn't vote to return some of the service to the streets.

"I certainly expect that the MTA is going to roll back in a significant way the 10 percent service cuts that are proposed [for the next two fiscal years,] and if they don't, I won't support the budget," said Chiu.