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SFMTA Board Considers New Muni Fare Discounts

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Muni fares will automatically increase with inflation as part of the SFMTA’s next fiscal year budget, but the agency’s board is exploring ways to fine-tune its fare adjustments to keep the system accessible to low-income riders [PDF]. The board is also considering higher fares for cash-paying riders in an effort to speed up boarding.

The latter measure could come in the form of delayed fare hikes for Clipper card payments, to create an incentive for riders to use the more efficient medium. About 55 percent of Muni riders still pay with cash, according to the SFMTA. Board members said yesterday that they favored the idea as a way to reduce delays caused by cash handling.

“Folks, if you’re not on Clipper card yet, you’ve gotta get with the program,” said board member Joél Ramos, who bemoaned “the delay of dwelling time that it takes to get everyone on board.”

By default, inflation indexing would increase general single-ride Muni fares from $2 to $2.25 in July, but the Clipper incentive option would apply the 25-cent increase to cash fares only. Discounted cash fares for youth, seniors, and disabled riders would go up from $0.75 to $1.00. Adult monthly passes which include intra-city BART rides are also set to go up from $76 to $78, then $81 in fiscal year 2016.

Free Muni for low-income youth, a program originally implemented as a two-year pilot, is now set to be funded for at least two more years, thanks to a $6.8 million grant from Google. The SFMTA is also considering expanding the program to include 18-year-old students (currently the cutoff age is 17), as well as free Muni programs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Several dozen speakers urged the SFMTA board yesterday to adopt those programs.

The push has spurred discussion at the agency about tailoring Muni fare discounts based on personal income, rather than age or physical ability. Traditionally, monthly passes for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities have been discounted at 33 percent of the regular fare. The SFMTA proposed increasing that to 50 percent, using the revenue to help fund new free pass programs for low-income riders. Board members said they liked the idea, though it wouldn’t fully underwrite the expanded free pass programs, and said finding the rest of the funding for those programs would be a major challenge.

Of the other targeted fare increases put on the table, the greatest opposition has arisen to hikes on the F-Line to as much as $6. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that proposal is based on the higher costs of running historic streetcars compared to regular Muni vehicles (similar to the costs of cable cars).

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POWER: Mobility for Low-Income San Franciscans Means Putting Transit First

The "stress and indignities of over-crowding." Boarding the 8x-Bayshore Express, Flickr user Confetti writes: "An older man is knocked down or falls in a scuffle to board an already over-crowded bus."

Advocates for San Francisco’s low-income communities have issued a new report calling for policy changes intended to improve Muni service, increase mobility for transit-dependent San Franciscans, reduce pollution from driving, and improve the city’s economy.

Next Stop: Justice” was released last month by People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), a group that made headlines over the past year with its Free Muni for Youth campaign. The report highlights the disproportionate impact of poor transit service on San Franciscans who have few transportation options, calling for shifting policy and funding priorities from the automobile to public transit, more bus-only lanes, keeping Muni fares low, and scaling back fare enforcement.

Jaron Browne, POWER’s communications director, said the report is intended to increase the visibility of Muni’s role in improving equity, the environment, and economic opportunity in San Francisco.

“Public transit is already so pivotal, and will be increasingly pivotal for the way that the city functions as a whole, for the future of the planet, and for the way that our families in our communities can access all the resources and opportunities that our city has at hand,” he said.

The report includes “key strategies that we think would help facilitate having a robust transit system that’s well-financed and serves the needs of all San Franciscans, including working class bus riders and the transit-dependent,” added Browne.

Based on data on Muni’s reliability in low-income neighborhoods, POWER’s report states that “the on-time performance on each of these lines in Southeast San Francisco is significantly worse than the system average” of less than 60 percent.

While POWER doesn’t necessarily assert that Muni distributes transit service and improvements inequitably throughout the city, the group says system-wide problems like unreliable, infrequent service and overcrowding have a greater effect on low-income residents. “In transit-dependent, low-income communities, where folks don’t have other means to get around, the impact is more severe,” said Browne. “There are long commutes of more than an hour to get out of Bayview, even if it’s a distance that would only take 10 minutes to drive,” leading some families to pool their money and buy a car.

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AC Transit Board To Consider Declaring Fiscal Emergency

ac_transit_rider.jpgFlickr photo: pbo31
The MTA Board did it this week, and now AC Transit may become the second transit agency in the Bay Area to declare a fiscal emergency. Such a declaration allows the agencies to bypass environmental review in order to implement service cuts.

The AC Transit Board of Directors voted yesterday to hold a public hearing on the issue next month. From the press release:

The projected drop in resources will force the District to deplete its financial reserves, leaving the District with a shortfall in “net working capital” of $9.74 million during the next fiscal year (2009-2010.)  The deficit is expected to worsen by the end of fiscal year 2010, ballooning to as much as $57 million.

Fare increases are already scheduled to take effect July 1st. The agency has also instituted a hiring freeze, among other things.

The public hearing will be held Wednesday May 27th, in the second floor Board Room, 1600 Franklin Street, in Oakland.

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Where is the MTA Board’s Leadership on the Budget Crisis?

IMG_2775.jpgMTA Chair Tom Nolan.

Aside from Malcolm Heinicke’s proposal to tax rental cars at SFO — which was apparently shot down by legal staff — no member of the MTA Board of Directors has offered any ideas for generating new revenue, other than toying or saying yay or nay to recommendations presented by staff, to help the agency limp out of the red ink.

Granted, finding new sources of revenue is an issue transit agencies everywhere are grappling with, but Muni has been historically underfunded, and while they keep proving they’re no experts on the issues, the current members of the MTA Board are certainly no strangers to them. Why, then, are they so reticent to offer up their own ideas for solving the current $129 million deficit? And does their lack of bold leadership point to a fundamental flaw in how the MTA is governed?

Even Chair Tom Nolan, at the end of the budget discussion at yesterday’s Board meeting and public hearing, expressed concerns directors didn’t provide proper guidance to staff to balance the budget by next Thursday, when the Board will hold a special meeting to adopt a final spending plan. He had urged them at the beginning to be “as thoughtful as possible.”

“I’m not sure we’ve established anywhere near sufficient direction to the staff to come back with a balanced budget.”

“I
think most of us here tonight suggested things to take away from the
plan…and not filled them in with the other
side of it. I’m not sure we’ve established anywhere near sufficient
direction to the staff to come back with a balanced budget by next
Thursday,” said Nolan, who then asked for feedback from Chief Financial
Officer Sonali Bose.

“I think I’ve heard some consistency
among the directors so I think that I have enough guidance to bring
back something by the 30th,” she responded.

“A balanced budget?” asked Nolan.

“A balanced budget.”

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California Cities Need A Predictable Fund For Transit Operations

train.jpgPhoto by George Donnelly, via Flickr
When the State Transit Assistance (STA) fund was zeroed out to pass the budget a couple of months ago, the already dire situation for transit operators in California became much worse.  In the Bay Area, AC Transit raised fares, the MTA has been considering budget cuts and fare hikes, and BART will likely do the same if its board can get to the discussion at the next meeting. 

While these temporary solutions will balance the spreadsheets for this year, the state's commitment to transit operations for the next five years will be a pittance and operators will continue to suffer.  Unless advocates can get on the same page and build a comprehensive coalition to call for more funding, elected officials like Governor Schwarzenegger will get away with pitching themselves as green politicians and then sabotaging one of the best ways to make our mobility more sustainable.

Unfortunately, advocates are not unified in their call for a commitment to transit.  Several hundred people have turned out at meetings about funding cuts, but those same numbers have not made it to Sacramento to lobby legislators for an affirmative change. Some of the groups will be spending their resources lobbying Washington for changes to the transportation act rather than dealing with the troubled situation at the state level.

"For me, part of it will be where the biggest opportunities are for organizing. There is some possibility for major transitions at the federal level," said CALPIRG's Emily Rusch, cautioning that transit constituency wasn't strong enough at the state level. "It will take some time before we can find more money from legislators or at the ballot."

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MTA Board Tweaks Budget Proposal Following First Public Hearing

IMG_2779.jpgExecutive Director Nat Ford and Directors Cameron Beach and Rev. James McCray listen to testimony.
The Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, in a marathon meeting that lasted nearly six hours, voiced support for fare hikes, but balked at a budget proposal to charge 50 cents for transfers and indicated it favors service reduction options that will impose the least impact on Muni riders to close a $129 million deficit.

The discussion to pare down some of the MTA's proposals came after a public hearing that drew more than 80 speakers, including Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. Hundreds of people showed up for the meeting in Room 400 at City Hall but many had to be directed to two overflow rooms, including the North Light Court on the first floor, where they watched the proceedings on large TV screens.

Taxi drivers opposed to the auctioning of medallions dominated much of the testimony, but some Muni riders, wearing orange stickers emblazoned with "No Muni Service Cuts," expressed outrage at the proposed 50 cent fare increase and cuts.

Beyond Chron writer Paul Hogarth of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Transit Not Traffic Coalition urged the Board to expand Muni's Lifeline pass for low-income riders.

"Our firm position is that no fare increase is acceptable without first fixing the low-income Lifeline Fast Pass. Without that option for low-income folks, many people in San Francisco will not be able to afford public transit," said Hogarth.

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Despite Outcry, MTC Board Approves OAK Connector Funds

Proud_Bus_Rider.jpgAdvocates packed the MTC hearing room
Transportation and social justice advocates packed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) board meeting today to demand that the agency not spend a proposed $70 million of federal stimulus money on the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project.  MTC commissioners heard testimony for over two hours from some of the more than one hundred members of the public who were mostly opposed to the OAC, claiming it would take money from the operations of AC Transit and other transit operators. 

The tremendous turnout and high energy of the public speakers gave incoming MTC Chairman Scott Haggerty a lot to deal with for his first meeting as chair, though in the end the vote went as expected.  With the exception of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, every voting MTC commissioner approved the OAC allocation within the larger spending proposal by staff (PDF). 

Many MTC Commissioners expressed their concern for transit riders but seemed content to vote for the OAC with the provision advocated by MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger that any money for expansion projects that wasn't successfully obligated by the end of June would be turned over to the operators in accordance with funding formulas.

Reverend Scott Denman, president of Genesis, a local affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, bemoaned the dismal state of AC Transit's operational budget and urged the MTC not to put any money into an expansion project that he argued wouldn't benefit the greatest number of Bay Area residents.  He prompted some of the only laughter of the day when he said, "I do believe the (OAC] is shovel ready.  Let's dig the grave, toss it in, and I will personally do the last rites."

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