Supes Avalos, Wiener Clash on Equitable Spending Strategies for Muni

John Avalos (left) and Scott Wiener (right). Left photo: Paul Chinn, SF Chronicle. Right photo: Dennis Hearne Photography

Supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener are sparring over how new revenue for transit should be spent to benefit the Muni riders who need it most.

With tax measures proposed for the 2014 ballot that could significantly increase transportation funds, Avalos introduced a charter amendment yesterday that would “require the city to prioritize investments to address existing disparities in service to low-income and transit dependent areas,” according to a statement from his office.

The Transit Equity Charter Amendment “provides a framework for how the city rebuilds transportation transit infrastructure and rebuilds transit service,” Avalos said at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, explaining that it would also set stricter equity performance metrics and increase oversight by the SF County Transportation Authority Board, which is comprised of the supervisors. “It will help ensure that our investments are also targeted to address service deficiencies in our low-income and transit-dependent neighborhoods,” he said.

If approved, the amendment — also sponsored by Supervisors David Campos, Jane Kim, Norman Yee, and Eric Mar — would be placed on the November 2014 ballot alongside tax measures to increase funding for transportation upgrades, as recommended by Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation 2030 Task Force, a 48-member group that has met throughout the year to develop the recommendations.

Avalos, who represents the SFCTA Board on the task force — also known as T2030 — has criticized its lack of representatives of low-income communities. It has reps from a broad range of city agencies, regional transportation agencies, and transportation advocates like SPUR, the SF Bicycle Coalition, and Walk SF, as well as labor groups. It also includes two for-profit tech companies — Google and Genentech.

Representing the Board of Supervisors on the task force along with Supervisor David Chiu is Wiener, who said the Avalos amendment will “undermine Muni service, make the system less reliable, and do nothing to achieve what we need most: to shore up the system and expand its capacity to meet the needs of our growing population.”

“This charter amendment won’t improve Muni reliability and capacity,” Wiener said in a statement. “Rather, it will divert transit funding away from system reliability needs. It will give the Board of Supervisors significant new authority over Muni’s budget, taking us back to the bad old days when the Board routinely used Muni as a piggy bank, before the voters took Muni away from the Board.”

“Muni serves all communities, and low-income and working class people live in every part of the city,” said Wiener. “The vast majority of Muni lines go through both higher income and lower income neighborhoods alike. We have very few lines that are limited to only lower income or higher income neighborhoods. The deteriorated light-rail vehicles that fail residents of the Castro are the same LRVs that fail residents of the Bayview, Excelsior, and Sunset.”

Wiener criticized what he called a “permanent $5-10 million annual diversion from Muni’s operating and maintenance budgets [that] will take away Muni’s flexibility to make investments to improve the system.” The Avalos legislation also says “fare increases would be limited to the increase in the Bay Area Consumer Price Index.”

Avalos told Streetsblog the amendment won’t give any power to the SFCTA or supervisors to take money away from the SFMTA, but will increase the SFCTA’s oversight of how the SFMTA spends a new $70 million set-aside, taken out of the city’s general fund.

That money is expected to be offset by new revenue from T2030′s proposed tax measures, which the City Controller’s office estimates could bring up to $200 million in new annual city revenue, an undetermined share of which would go toward transportation, depending on the stipulations in the ballot measures. Those measures are: an increase in the city’s vehicle license fee from 0.65 percent to 2 percent (the statewide level before it was lowered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), which is expected to bring in $73 million annually; a 0.5 percent increase in the city sales tax; and a $1 billion general obligation bond.

“As state and federal support for transit keeps shrinking, there is a growing competition for regional funding between transit capital needs and operating needs, and both sets of needs have their strong partisans,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, who said he hasn’t taken a position on Avalos’ proposal yet. “At both the city and regional level, we simply don’t put enough funding towards transit to meet both sets of obligations.”

The SFCTA already has a set of equity standards it would use to scrutinize how the funds would be doled out, which received high praise supervisors and transportation advocates after it was explained at an SFCTA committee meeting Tuesday. Still, Avalos said his aim is to give a voice to people who didn’t have a chance to push for accountability measures as the mayor’s task force developed its revenue proposals.

“I’m bringing the communities I’m close to, that have the daily experience of riding Muni, to the table — a table they weren’t invited to when the T2030 began — to make sure we can build consensus on measures that we’ll have on the ballot that will get broad support,” said Avalos. “There has to be an equity framework for people to get on board.”

Avalos, who has previously attempted to steer Muni funds, said Muni riders headed to outlying neighborhoods like the ones he represents often suffer from switchbacks, in which they are forced to disembark and wait for another train when buses and trains are bunched together, as a vehicle is redirected to another point in the system where it’s more needed. Meanwhile, he said, inhospitable conditions remain at sites like the poorly-designed Balboa Park Station and San Jose Avenue, where pedestrian safety improvements are needed for J-Church riders who must cross lanes of fast-moving traffic to access the line in the center of the street.

Such fixes in the outer neighborhoods, said Avalos, tend to take a back seat to service upgrades in the “core” of the Muni system, which is also where much of the city’s current development is happening — a chunk of that in Wiener’s district 8.

“Scott doesn’t have a citywide perspective on things,” said Avalos. “How do our transit dollars get appropriated right now? Where do we see the preponderance of our transit dollars move in San Francisco? They go to where the cranes are. They go to where all the development is happening, and we see neighborhoods all over San Francisco get the short end of the stick.”

“We still have big projects that we have to fund — Transbay [Transit Center], Market Street, Van Ness Bus and Geary Rapid Transit, Caltrain electrification,” he added. “But we also have projects that we need to support the everyday experience of transit riders all over San Francisco.”

SF Transit Riders Union spokesperson Jim Frank said the organization “urges the supervisors to agree on a proposal… that invests both in our infrastructure (BRT, TEP, state of good repair) and service (better frequency on crowded routes).”

“Muni is in a death spiral,” said Frank. “Voters will look critically at all proposals and will want to make sure that the money is well spent. An investment into the system infrastructure and service of the core network will benefit everyone in the city.”

Avalos, meanwhile, doesn’t buy Wiener’s argument that commuters in neighborhoods like Visitacion Valley should be content with upgrades further down their Muni line.

“It’s interesting because I’ve talked about the deficiencies of Muni all over San Francisco, and I’ve never really heard him talk about the deficiencies of Muni in District 11,” said Avalos. “When there were turnbacks happening for the J-Church line, it was perfectly fine for them to turn back to District 8 when it wasn’t coming into District 11. All things are not equal in San Francisco.”

For more on Avalos’ charter amendment, read the legislative digest or the Transit Equity Charter Amendment.