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

4:11 PM PDT on April 22, 2009

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."

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."

Earlier, in public testimony, Livable City
Executive Director Tom Radulovich, a member of the Transit Justice Coalition, reminded the Board that the City Charter
demands that the MTA come up with new sources of revenue.

"The City Charter says this body, the MTA
Board, shall diligently seek
new sources of revenue for this agency," he said. "We need to be strategic when
thinking about revenue. We can't just do it in the months leading up to
a budget adoption."

MTA directors, if they wanted to, could take their case directly to the voters, but they've refused to do that. Last year, they rejected a set of recommendations for tax increases to fund the MTA, including raising the utility users tax. And they haven't bothered to seriously consider "out of the box" ideas, like charging a fee for residential curb cuts.

The MTA, under pressure from the Mayor's office, also nixed a plan to raise parking citation fines, which would have generated $4.8 million in much needed revenue. Directors have also not been aggressive about cost-saving service improvements the MTA could easily implement under the declaration of fiscal emergency it voted for yesterday -- such as rolling out bus stop spacing recommendations now instead of later, or as Radulovich suggested, painting bus lanes so drivers get a clear message they are only for transit.

Part of the problem is the MTA Board is only part-time. Each member gets paid $150 a meeting. Some advocates and electeds, including Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, have said it might be time to consider having the MTA Board elected. No member of the current MTA Board has offered up a single measure, something each director has the power to do.

Many of the proposals that have emerged from staff -- namely fare hikes and service cuts -- are not sitting well with the public, or with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who has introduced a resolution (PDF) that threatens to derail the final MTA budget. Supes have the power to reject the budget with a super majority vote of seven members.

Radulovich points out that not sending MTA Executive Nat Ford or CFO Sonali Bose to the Budget and Finance Committee hearing on work orders "showed a real contempt for the Board of Supes."

"They really set it up for some kind of confrontation with the Board," he said. "But at this point I have a little more confidence in the Board of Supervisors than I do with the MTA Board. Hopefully, they'll fix it. We'll see."

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