SFMTA Leaning Toward Extended Meter Hours, Away From Fare Hikes

Photo: Myleen Hollero / Orange Photography

A picture is forming of how the SFMTA might address its budget shortfalls over the next two years. The SFMTA Board of Directors and an advisory panel of community leaders seem to oppose any further fare hikes or service cuts for Muni riders while mostly favoring extending parking meter hours to nights and Sundays — a politically challenging yet long-overdue measure.

Yesterday, board members voiced their positions on a list of proposed budget measures [PDF] after Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin reported which ones were generally supported by the advisory panel. The panel has met regularly over the past two months to develop recommendations for SFMTA staff about how to address the agency’s looming budget gap — $19.6 million over the next fiscal year and $33.6 million in the following year — as well as a $120 million backlog in Muni vehicle maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

The panel is expected to submit official budget recommendations to the board later this month, but consensus is starting to form on most fronts. The group is composed of roughly a dozen representatives from the SF Chamber of Commerce, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), labor organizations, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association, the SF Bicycle Coalition, the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, and other advocates. SFMTA representatives include Reiskin, Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose, and Directors Cheryl Brinkman and Bruce Oka.

The panel generally favored proposals including an end to the MTA’s $9 million in annual payments to the SFPD for traffic enforcement (an arrangement which Chamber of Commerce President Jim Lazarus called “ridiculous,” according to the Chronicle), installing new car parking meters in high-demand areas, enforcing an existing regulation on downtown parking garage pricing, and a minor traffic fine increase to offset state-imposed fees.

The panel and most SFMTA directors also favor extending operating hours for car parking meters to Sundays and weeknights — a promising sign for proponents of the measure, which could reduce the number of drivers circling for parking. The board also favored it two years ago, but it was nixed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Letting the current dysfunctional schedule for metered parking continue costs the agency an estimated $11.8 million each year in lost revenue alone. In addition, excessive demand for free parking spots can lead frustrated drivers to double park — the top cause of Muni delays aside from maintenance and other internal agency issues. Given that pricing parking properly encourages turnover for businesses, Brinkman said she thinks “certain neighborhoods are going to embrace this.”

While Mayor Ed Lee and other officials have touted demand-based parking pricing under the groundbreaking SFPark program, they haven’t seemed willing to apply the same principle to price parking in busy districts during Sundays and weeknights after 6 p.m., as SFMTA staff recommended in a 2009 study.

“Last time, we got a lot of pressure from the supervisors to look at it, and when we put it to the supervisors to tell us which one of them wanted it in their district — guess what — nobody wanted it in their district,” said Director Malcom Heinicke. “I think we need to try a new approach to recognize that we don’t operate through the Board of Supervisors, we operate directly with the community… We need to identify some business corridors that would be willing to explore a pilot program.”

Though one reverend complained that paying for car parking on Sundays would be a burden for churchgoers who drive if they need to re-fill their meters, Brinkman pointed out that that’s an ease-of-payment issue, and that drivers would actually be able to find nearby parking more easily. Parking control officers have for decades looked the other way every Sunday when churchgoing drivers commandeer traffic lanes and bike lanes for double parking, despite the danger they pose to bicyclists.

Also favored by the panel was the installation of 500 to 1,000 new parking meters (estimated to bring in $1 million in revenue), with some members noting the need for outreach in implementation. The panel also supported a $5 increase for traffic citations to offset increases in state-imposed courthouse fees, as well as enforcing existing prohibitions on early-bird and monthly discounts at downtown parking garages built after 1984, which would recover an estimated $6 million per year in forfeited revenue. However, members stopped short of favoring extending that prohibition citywide because they didn’t think “it has a great chance of succeding,” said Brinkman.

The proposed revenue measures could help fund a program to provide free Muni for youth, which Reiskin said the panel also supported. That would require the agency to recoup an estimated $7.9 million in lost fare revenue, or $4 million if it is limited to low-income students. More than 100 proponents of that measure organized by POWER spoke for over four hours at yesterday’s board meeting.

Though directors roundly expressed their support for the endeavor, they differed on how to best implement it. Director Oka said he was concerned that if a pilot program started this year without a sustainable funding source, the agency may be forced to cut it in the future.

“If I’m going to start the program, I want us to be able to continue it,” said Oka. Director Joél Ramos disagreed, arguing that the pilot would “set the precedent as a value” and cause staff to prioritize its funding in future budgets.

Critics of free youth passes have voiced concern about where the money for the program would come from, but Director Leona Bridges, who was appointed largely for her financial background, pointed out that when students can’t afford to ride Muni, they are more likely to be truant at school and their education ultimately suffers.

“You save on one side, but you’re spending money on another side in the criminal justice system,” said Bridges. Ramos also argued that subsidizing free car parking on Sundays and weeknights while denying free Muni rides for low-income youth is “just backwards.”

Proposals taken off the table for panel recommendation include $0.25 increases for paper transfers or cash Muni fares, which all SFMTA board members seemed opposed to except for Heinicke, who argued it would encourage more use of the Clipper card, and therefore faster boardings. The panel also won’t recommend an increase in the developer fee for lost parking meter revenue during construction, which Reiskin and Brinkman said they agreed with because the Transportation Sustainability Fee should account for those costs when it’s expected to go into effect late next year.

The SFMTA is holding town hall meetings on the budget throughout March, and the Board of Directors is expected to vote on a budget on April 3.