Transit Advocates Debate the Merits of New Muni Ballot Measure

3427971694_767451dc6d.jpgBoard of Supervisors President David Chiu testifies before the SFMTA Board last year. A new ballot measure would give the Board of Supervisors power to nominate three of the seven SFMTA Board members, and jointly appoint one with the Mayor. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The ink has barely dried on the first public draft of a charter amendment that could bring sweeping changes to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), but supporters and critics are already digging in for a battle that could once again redefine the city’s transit system.

On one side, there are the six members of the Board of Supervisors’ progressive block, some of the city’s transit advocacy groups, and a coalition of progressive groups that do some organizing around transit, but which aren’t transportation-specific organizations. Many of those groups have been involved in the crafting of the measure, though it remains to be seen whether all of them will remain on board with the final product.

In the days since the measure was announced, the Mayor’s office has come out in opposition to it, along with dissenting groups of transit advocates such as Rescue Muni.

With a final draft of the amendment still pending, it’s also not certain whether the Muni operators’ union will line up behind it. The measure in its present form would remove a charter provision guaranteeing them the second highest transit operator salary in the country.

Daniel Murphy, who chairs the SFMTA’s Citizens’ Advisory Council, argued that the measure is a misguided attempt to move power from the Mayor’s Office to the Board of Supervisors.

Giving the Board of Supervisors the power to appoint half the SFMTA Board (including a joint appointment with the Mayor), lowering the number of votes needed to reject the SFMTA’s budget to six, and giving the supervisors more say over route changes would give them "enough leverage to do anything they want to the agency whenever they want, period," said Murphy. "Under this measure, there’s no reason for the MTA board to even exist."

Echoing the words of Tony Winnicker, a spokesperson for the Mayor, Murphy described the measure as "a much more shocking power grab than I expected from them," while pointing to the influence the supervisors already exercise over Muni, including through control of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Murphy, a veteran of the legislative process who helped craft Proposition E in 1999, would rather the SFCTA be folded into the SFMTA, with two of the supervisors subsequently sitting on the SFMTA Board themselves. "I think it would actually create a better relationship between the supervisors and the agency," he said. "It’s certainly better than just giving the supervisors carte blanche power over the agency, which this thing does."

But the supervisors were far from alone in crafting the measure, which includes input from the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinatown Community Development Center, Livable City, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and the Senior Action Network.

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich — himself a member of the elected BART Board of Directors — said there’s a lot to like in the broad-ranging measure. "Fixing Muni isn’t a one-dimensional question," said Radulovich. "There’s a lot that’s broken and it all needs to get fixed."

Proposition E in 1999 gave the Mayor the power to appoint the full board, but Radulovich said that setup hasn’t worked. "The notion that you can run [the SFMTA] out of the Mayor’s office, not only was it not the intent of Prop E, it doesn’t work," he said. The SFMTA, now a decade old, "has really failed," he added.

Dave Snyder, who heads the new San Francisco Transit Riders Union, said his organization hasn’t taken a position on the measure yet, but he’s encouraged by it. "I’m happy to see a comprehensive look at the issue," Snyder said. "The existing management of Muni, with so much power in the Mayor’s office, clearly isn’t working very well. That’s a fact."

Murphy and Rescue Muni chair Andrew Sullivan remained deeply skeptical, however.

"Prior to 2000, the Supervisors reviewed every line item in the budget, and service was far worse then (based on service standards) than it is now," Sullivan wrote in an email to Streetsblog. "Since 2000, the Supervisors have often tried to force the MTA to make bad decisions for riders, including such things as forcing the agency to test CNG buses, blocking stop consolidation, delaying route changes, and as SFCTA, approving an expenditure plan that sent transit sales tax money to pay for [Doyle Drive]."

Murphy also dismissed the measure’s provision to create an independent auditor for the SFMTA as unnecessary, since the city already audits the agency through the Controller’s Office. But Radulovich, as a BART director, said he’s jealous of the idea.

"An Inspector General, not only to serve as the auditor for the MTA, but putting them in charge of performance measurement, I think is definitely huge," he said. "As a policymaker, you’re dependent on your professional staff, and if you don’t have your own independent check, well, they want to hide their failures."

The one piece of the legislation Murphy did like is the estimated $40 million in tax revenue the SFMTA would get from the general fund. The Mayor’s office opposed that, since it would come from the city’s general fund.

Murphy also doubted the measure would be approved by voters in its present form. "Prop. E was this big thing where everybody held hands and sang Kumbaya and it got 61 or 62 percent of the vote," he said. "The idea that this will manage to hold a majority in an election that’s probably not going to be a super high turnout election for San Francisco — that’s just not going to happen."

But Judson True, a former SFMTA spokesperson and current aide to Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, said the four supervisors who sponsored the initiative would do the heavy lifting to promote it.

"With so many supervisors behind this effort to begin with, you can be sure the measure will have considerable support in the fall," said True. "We also expect the already strong coalition of transit advocates to grow as the measure goes through the Board process over the next few months."

  • It’s interesting to see how people immediately all attack each other instead of work together. Why is the Mayor’s office so defensive of his terrible past? He’s gone soon anyway, and there’s no way anyone can say that giving a bad mayor all the power is a great idea.

    Then again, the Supervisors haven’t helped their cause since all we’ve heard from the Board in 2010 is an endless stream of nonbinding resolutions, capped with an attack on Muni’s ability to enforce fares. And progressives haven’t been forthcoming with any real Muni solutions for years beyond a mushy “tax downtown” solution they can’t even explain.

    Let the San Francisco Style Political Demolition Derby Begin! Whatever the folks in City Hall do, it’s doubtful they’ll really care about what happens to the day to day ride for Muni owners. If they did, maybe we wouldn’t have allowed things to get this bad before all these people “suddenly” became concerned about Muni.

  • Mission Mom

    Very disappointing. Set-asides are much easier than trying for new revenue sources (just see the Examiner’s recent: “Fix for Potholes is Higher Taxes; Long-neglected streets need millions of dollars that may come out of your pocket” ( I have a hard time believing shared MTA Board appointments, a simple majority to reject fare increases and bus line abandonments, and a cushy set-aside will “fix MUNI” or even do much more than further restrict the MTA’s ability to meet passenger needs and the City’s ability to balance its restricted and volatile budget.

    Transit needs money but so do streets. Why not have an honest conversation about how to fix all transportation needs by looking at new revenue sources, or even enforcing existing codes? Oh wait, …

  • So, it’s clear that this measure is half-baked, just like it’s clear that the Elsbernd measure is half-baked. But both of them do have some useful elements.

    So should I vote for the measures knowing that they might be the only things we get, or is it better to just do nothing? Because the ballot I’m going to vote for isn’t going to contain an ideal measure and I have no faith that we’ll ever get anything better if voters reject these measures. . .

  • patrick

    I have the same concern as SFResident. It’s pretty clear that what we have now is garbage, so the real question is the proposal going to be worse than what is already in existence?

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Any way you look at it, the existence of dozens of organizations devoted to chaning Muni can only be seen as a vote of no confidence in Nat Ford.

  • rich415

    the sales pitch is to make the operators bargain for there wages, muni operators carry 2.5 million people a year, they also are the only transit agency to operate 4 different modes of tranportation , buses, trolleys. trains, and cable cars, with the topography and the density of san francisco, any arbitratior will side with the drivers that they should easily be the highest paid in the nation easily, if you change the charter agreement and take out the clause that keeps a cap on them . than what makes you think they will not be the highest paid, there are alot of operators who hopes the sean elsbern measure passes, so they can be the highest paid. fix muni coalition is a farce, and the operators, the smart cant wait for contract negotiations to start, see you at the negotiation tables.

  • andrew

    @rich415 The current provision, thank you Aaron Peskin, is a MINIMUM. This is what the Elsbernd amendment proposes to eliminate. Also, the Elsbernd amendment requires binding arbitration in a way that the Campos amendment does not.

  • Alex

    @rich YAWN.

    1.) Individual operators do not operate four different modes of transportation in a given pay period or quarter (or however often drivers get a chance to change assignments). In this way it’s no different from Boston’s MBTA or Pennsylvania’s SEPTA. Hell, in Seattle, they have dual-mode buses that require

    2.) What’s wrong with bargaining for your wages? Every other union that the city and county of San Francisco deal with negotiates their wages.

    @Greg Don’t forget that it takes two to tango. With the last round of cuts that the MTA has foisted upon us MTA brass explicitly refused to even *consider* changes that would require BoS approval. If the MTA can’t be bothered to do outreach, or even TRY, that’s not the fault of the Board of Supervisors. Of course the MTA won’t get their way if they continue to make such a half-assed effort. FFS, Nat Ford didn’t even bother showing up to the so-called Town Hall meetings.

    I wonder how long it’ll take Mr. Sullivan to realize how much of a detriment he is is to MUNI’s future success. Of course he’s going to try to put as much of a negative spin on the proposed amendments. Andrew and RM helped get us into this mess by setting a salary baseline and a lopsided balance of power on the MTA board. It’s nice to see that he’s completely ignored how service has been on the decline for a number of years.


Parking Tax Revenue Measure for Muni Makes Its Way to Supervisors

Photo: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography A parking tax increase that could send $19.2 million to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency moved a step closer to the ballot Tuesday, as Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced the measure before his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. Mirkarimi made the move at the behest of the SFMTA Board, which […]

Supes Avalos, Wiener Clash on Equitable Spending Strategies for Muni

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 […]