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Supes Reject Appeal for CEQA Review of Sunday Parking Meter Repeal

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 yesterday to reject an appeal, filed by sustainable transportation advocates, to require environmental review of the SFMTA’s repeal of Sunday parking meters. Although the vote was not on the merits of Sunday parking metering, but rather whether the SFMTA violated the California Environmental Quality Act in repealing it, the hearing shed some more light on the political stances of some supervisors.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

All supervisors, except John Avalos and Eric Mar, voted to reject the appeal. Supervisor Scott Wiener argued that, even if supervisors opposed removing Sunday meters and the SFMTA governance structure that allowed Mayor Ed Lee to push it through, CEQA must be applied consistently. “I have enormous respect for the appellants in this case,” he said. “I work with them regularly in our joint quest to adequately fund our public transportation system and have smart transportation policy in San Francisco… but this is about whether the SFMTA correctly applied a CEQA exemption.”

Wiener has been a proponent of reforming CEQA to curb frivolous appeals, which are often used by opponents to delay even environmentally beneficial projects, like bike lanes. Since the Sunday meter repeal was approved as part of the SFMTA’s budget as a whole, and budget adjustments have a statutory exemption from CEQA review, Wiener argued that upholding the appeal would mean it would have to apply to other changes, like the free Muni for low-income youth program.

“Rejecting a correctly applied statuary exemption because one might disagree with the underlying policy decision, and trying to force it into a higher level of CEQA review, has profound implications not just for this issue but for the many, many other situations that MTA and other agencies deal with — situations [like] fees, fines and fares,” Wiener said.

But the appellants, representing Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union, disagreed. They argued that removing Sunday meters comes with a particular set of impacts, particularly increased traffic congestion, since the SFMTA’s own studies showed benefits such as cutting in half the time that drivers take to find a commercial parking spot.

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Sunday Meter Repeal Needs No CEQA Review, Say SFMTA and Planning Dept.

An appeal claiming that the repeal of Sunday parking meters is an action that requires environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act is baseless, according to responses issued by the SFMTA and Planning Department this week.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The appeal, filed by Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union, is set for a hearing and vote at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The board will not vote not on the merits of running parking meters on Sundays. Instead, the board will vote on whether CEQA would require an environmental impact report for the SFMTA’s new budget, which directs the agency to stop charging for meters on Sundays. The supervisors’ decision is expected to be largely informed by the recommendations of the SFMTA and the Planning Department.

The policy change is expected to remove $11 million per year in transit funding, as well as double the average time that drivers take to find commercial parking spaces on Sundays, according to an SFMTA study [PDF] of the benefits that Sunday meters garnered in their first year. The appellants argue that impacts like increased traffic congestion and pollution, reduced parking turnover for businesses, and lost transit funding warrant an EIR.

“Our appeal insists that CEQA doesn’t allow an exemption for lowering of parking fees, when such an action would clearly impact the environment,” said Mario Tanev of SFTRU.

But the SFMTA maintains that the act of removing fees (e.g., Sunday meter fees) fits within a CEQA exemption meant to allow for speedy municipal budget balancing. The agency argued in its memo [PDF] that the loss of $11 million is not of significant impact because Muni fares, parking ticket fines, and parking permit fees for construction contractors were increased to make up for it:

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SFTRU: Mayor Lee Keeps Giving Muni Riders the Short End of the Stick

Reps from the SF Transit Riders Union today said Mayor Ed Lee’s recent repeal of Sunday parking meters and abandonment of the vehicle license fee add up to an attack on transit riders.

“Somehow riders keep coming up at the short end of this stick,” SFTRU spokesperson Daniel Sisson said in a statement. “It is extremely difficult to see our city’s actions as anything but entirely hostile to the 700,000 transit riders each day. It’s a complete failure of leadership.”

Forget “Transit First.” Mayor Lee’s backtracking on two of the most promising transit efforts to come out under his administration reflect a “transit last” stance, SFTRU said in a press release. “In a time when we should be rising to meet the demand for transit today, and the increasing demand for transit in the city’s future, Ed Lee refuses to prioritize Muni at every turn.”

Lee announced this week that he would abandon support for the proposed ballot measure to restore the vehicle license fee within SF, which would raise about $1 billion over the next 15 years to re-pave roads and improve Muni, walking, and bicycling. That measure, which would reverse Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2004 cut to the VLF statewide, is the only proposal from the Mayor’s Transportation 2030 Task Force that specifically asks drivers to contribute to the transportation network in a way that starts to reflect the disproportionate costs they impose on it. Lee said there isn’t enough voter support to restore the VLF, based on a poll that found 44 percent would vote for it.

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Muni Tests Train With More Standing Room, Supes Breed and Wiener Approve

Photos courtesy of Supervisor London Breed’s office.

A Muni train car re-configured with fewer seats and more standing room was put into Metro service this week. According to the SFMTA, 14 “double-wide” seats were replaced with “single-wide” seats, adding a net capacity gain of “at least ten” riders to the car, which is a pilot project to squeeze more capacity onto Muni’s trains.

SFMTA officials, along with Supervisors London Breed and Scott Wiener, rode the car on the N-Judah yesterday morning. I was also supposed to be there, but in regular Muni fashion, the train wasn’t on time — in fact, it was inexplicably half an hour early. Fortunately, Breed’s office passed along some rare photos of public officials riding Muni.

While Muni riders wait for a fleet of 200 new train cars, “I am committed to doing everything possible to help Muni riders, and I look forward to hearing directly from them about this pilot design,” said Breed in a statement. “This design will create more space for Muni riders, who are too often forced to wedge onto full trains or wait at the station in hope for room on the next one.

From left to right: Supervisor London Breed, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, Supervisor Scott Wiener, and Muni Operations Director John Haley enjoy the additional standing room.

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SFTRU, Livable City Want CEQA Review of Sunday Parking Meter Repeal

Updated 4:16 p.m. with comment from Supervisor John Avalos.

Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union have filed an appeal claiming that the SFMTA’s vote to repeal Sunday parking meters requires California Environmental Quality Act environmental review.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Given that the policy change is expected to double the average time drivers take to find a commercial parking spot on Sundays, among other impacts, SFTRU’s Mario Tanev says the policy shouldn’t be changed without an environmental impact report. SFTRU also submitted a petition with more than 200 signatures in support of Sunday meters.

“Sunday meters were instituted after a wide outreach, yet are being discontinued based on the whim of one person in City Hall,” Tanev said in a statement referring to Mayor Ed Lee.

The appeal, first reported by the Bay Guardian, claims:

The enforcement of parking meters on Sunday in San Francisco has been doing exactly what it was designed to: reduce traffic congestion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase parking availability (including in commercial areas), and increase revenues for the City and County of San Francisco (City). Yet SFMTA is proposing without any meaningful analysis to stop enforcing this policy even though it provides benefits to the City and local neighborhood communities. By taking away these benefits, the Decision also increases automobile traffic in direct contradiction to the City’s Transit-First Policy, and, notably, on Sundays, a day when pedestrians and families spend significant time outdoors walking and traversing the streets to enjoy City events.

SFMTA specifically failed to analyze and consider the traffic and environmental impacts of its Decision as required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is designed to inform decision-makers and the public about potential, significant environmental effects of the Decision. Here, the public and decision-makers were not fully informed as to the impacts of the Decision – in fact they were given almost no information at all – and the purpose of CEQA was thwarted.

The appeal argues that although CEQA doesn’t require environmental review for fee hikes, such as expanding parking meters to Sundays, the act of removing fees (or Sunday meters) doesn’t fit within an exemption meant to allow for speedy municipal budget balancing.

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SFMTA Board Repeals Sunday Parking Meters

Get ready for the return of Sunday traffic dysfunction and double parking. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA Board of Directors today caved to pressure from Mayor Ed Lee by removing Sunday parking meters, a move folded into its approval of the agency’s two-year budget.

The Sunday meter reversal was supported by all but one of the SFMTA’s board members, who are appointed by the mayor. Board member Cristina Rubke said she thought reversing Sunday metering is “a mistake.”

But the change went unopposed even by other progressive board members, like Cheryl Brinkman and Joél Ramos, who had supported Sunday parking metering when the policy was approved in 2012. Brinkman and Ramos said they agreed with Mayor Lee’s stated strategy of bringing back free Sunday parking to win support for transportation funding measures headed to the ballot in November, and that SFMTA needed to do more education about the rationale behind parking metering.

“I know Mayor Lee has some of the best political minds in the city working with him in his office, and that they are very focused on helping to solve the city’s transportation funding issues,” said Brinkman, who is up for re-appointment at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Thursday. “It sounds like the mayor’s office is certain that this is going to help us in November.”

Brinkman said she’s “calling upon the mayor’s office to work with the MTA Board around education and community involvement in San Francisco’s parking problems. I feel we need to step back and find a way to work with our communities to really explain the reasons behind, and the need for, progressive parking management.”

“We have failed, frankly, to convince the great majority of people” of the benefits of Sunday meters, said Ramos. “You can listen to Matier and Ross, or read the papers, and see that the general sentiment of it is a negative one.”

Mainstream news reporters who have covered the Sunday metering issue, like columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross at the SF Chronicle and CBS affiliate KPIX, typically don’t mention that the SFMTA found that meters cut cruising times for parking in half and increased turnover for businesses by at least 20 percent. Instead, parking meters have typically been framed as a way to collect revenue, even in the Chronicle report on today’s vote.

Mayor Lee issued this statement about “reinstating free Sunday parking in San Francisco”:

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SFTRU Speaks Out Against Muni Service Cuts During Summer Break

Muni shouldn’t cut service to save money while school’s out for summer, the SF Transit Riders Union said in a statement yesterday. SFTRU is speaking out against what they call the SFMTA’s double standard of reducing transit service in “the blink of an eye” while deliberating smart parking policy changes for years.

Muni reduced service on several lines from June 29 to August 19, when most schools aren’t in session, to account for the drop in student ridership. The SFMTA says it expects to save $240,000 during the summer season. The agency also reduced service on student-heavy lines during the most recent winter and spring breaks, saving about $275,000 and $78,000, respectively, and reported no significant problems.

SFTRU’s Mario Tanev said that’s no excuse, since Muni has already cut too much service in recent years. “The fact is that with numerous service cuts during the past decade, peak and off-peak service on almost all lines has been downgraded to unacceptably low levels,” he said in a statement. “When combined with Muni’s historic lack of reliability, the proposed reduction in service will frequently result in even higher waiting times than promised.”

Noting that “San Francisco is the only major city in the US which has lost riders in the last decade,” Tanev argued that the cuts will exacerbate a “death spiral” of “service cuts and fare increases that force more to drive, in turn slowing Muni and making service even worse.”

Here are the summer service cuts, as summarized by the SFMTA:

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Supervisor Wiener Calls Hearings to Assess the Cost of Muni Delays

Muni riders, apparently leaving a broken-down N-Judah train, walk out of the Sunset Tunnel. Photo: ChazWags/Flickr

Just how bad is Muni? And is it getting any better? Supervisor Scott Wiener has called for monthly reports from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and the City Controller’s Office to tally up the true cost of transit delays and track progress on Muni’s reliability.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Dennis Hearne Photography

The regular reports to the Land Use and Economic Development Committee would help inform the public and keep Muni’s chronic problems in the spotlight as a funding priority, said Wiener. ”It’s important for us as policymakers to see it and hear from our constituents so we can build political support to actually fix this system,” he said at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We’ve had some budget debates relating to Muni in the past year, Muni has never won those debates, and we’ve seen money leave Muni or not come into Muni in the first place, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Wiener requested status reports on reducing Muni’s $420 million backlog in deferred maintenance for vehicles and infrastructure, and fixing up out-of-service Muni trains and buses. He also wants a monthly count of missed runs and “subway meltdowns,” as well as a study of the “economic productivity loss as people are stuck on Muni, late for work, miss appointments, don’t get to school, and don’t get to carry on their life because they’re waiting in a station, streaming up on to the street walking downtown.”

“Riders see this deficiency every day, with missed runs, with breakdowns, with systemic meltdowns where the entire subway fails for a significant period of time, and with all sorts of problems that seem to be occurring with more and more regularity,” said Wiener.

Ben Kaufman, spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said the organization “is encouraged by Supervisor Wiener’s proposal and appreciative of his attention to Muni’s system-wide issues that continue to plague its ridership.”

But beyond fixing up its existing infrastructure, said Kaufman, the city also needs to keep its eye on upgrading its transit routes with solutions like those proposed in the Transit Effectiveness Project, and to “implement them expeditiously.”

“It is incumbent upon our city to focus on the solutions to these problems rather than just the problems themselves,” he said. “We have a good idea of how to create an efficient and reliable transit system, as evidenced by the best practices of cities around the country and world. Transit improvements such as traffic signal prioritization and physically separated bus-only lanes will go a long way toward making bus and train performance more predictable for the agency — as we mitigate external factors such as traffic congestion and red lights — and thus more efficient and reliable for Muni passengers.”

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Muni Switchbacks Stink, But What’s the Real Root of the Problem?

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The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report [PDF] today blasting Muni’s regular practice of dumping riders and turning vehicles around early.

Known as a “switchback,” the practice is used by Muni management as way to alleviate delays when buses and trains are bunched together by redirecting a vehicle to another point in the system where it’s more needed. The practice was scrutinized by the Board of Supervisors last spring, and SFMTA Transit Director John Haley says the agency has made progress in reducing them and warning riders of them in advance. Members of the SF Transit Riders Union say focusing on switchbacks distracts from the root of Muni’s problems, like getting stuck in traffic and poorly-maintained vehicles, which make the measure necessary in the first place.

The Grand Jury said Muni officials’ use of the practice “shows a callous disregard for the welfare of riders,” claiming that few other major transit systems practice it regularly except in cases of breakdowns and emergencies.

At a press conference called by the SFMTA today, officials presented a document (summary [PDF], detailed [PDF]) responding to the Grand Jury’s claims, saying that the report ignores evidence and defending the use of switchbacks when necessary to alleviate problems.

“They don’t suggest an alternative,” said Haley, adding that Muni intends to propose scheduled switchbacks on some lines within the next six months, similar to regular practices on many other systems, including BART. Still, he said he doesn’t think unscheduled switchbacks “will ever be at zero.”

“If you look at the unevenness of where the demand is,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, “and people getting on and off the buses, it just doesn’t make sense to run every bus to the end of every line on every run.”

Ben Kaufman of the SF Transit Riders Union said switchbacks are just one symptom of Muni’s greater structural problems, and that a holistic approach is needed to improve the system. “The only way to minimize the amount of switchbacks is through a network of lines that don’t have to deal with external factors, like traffic congestion, getting stopped at stop signs and red lights,” he said. “That’s what we should be focusing on, not condemning the MTA for making switchbacks.”

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SFTRU Launches Campaign to Inform Riders About All-Door Boarding

SFTRU's brochure.

With Muni all-door boarding underway, other transit agencies are watching and bus riders are catching on – hopefully. To ensure a smooth transition to the new policy — which will help Muni maximize the benefits of faster boardings and higher fare compliance — the SF Transit Riders Union has created a brochure explaining the rules and etiquette of the all-door boarding system.

If you’d like to help get the word out, SFTRU is meeting up for its first “distribution party” tomorrow at 3 p.m. at Buck Tavern (1655 Market Street @ Gough). SFTRU noted that they especially need volunteers who speak Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

The party will re-convene back at Buck at 7 p.m. to celebrate.

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