Last week, MTA Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose gave a presentation to the newly minted Board on the Operating Budget for the next two years. While not as grim at it might have been without the shot in the arm provided by Proposition A in November, there is no doubt that MUNI needs more funds to meet the needs of transit riders in San Francisco. Labor and fuel costs are rising; there are unfunded operating costs from new capital projects in the pipeline; and a long-term structural deficit has made it all but impossible for MUNI to reach the voter-mandated on-time performance. A “Blue Ribbon” panel convened by Mayor Newsom last summer was to develop recommendations to fill the gap between costs and revenues for MUNI, but so far their effort has fallen short of providing the specific recommendations that our transit-first city needs.

This is a disappointing outcome for transit riders and activists. The panel did examine a number of options, but was cautious about endorsing the kind of forward thinking that MUNI will need to properly function. Because of the composition of the panel, several options were shelved without much discussion while others got a more thorough consideration. The panel did leave on the table a number of options that are worthy of a more intensive study, but was unwilling to take a clear position on anything yet. In lieu of suggestions from the panel, Bose compiled a vague list of preliminary recommendations which were included in her budget presentation, but this did little to help her and her staff put together a balanced budget as required by city charter.

Unfortunately, the most concrete suggestion -- to raise the cost of the monthly Fast Pass -- was quickly picked up by the press. Several stories in the Chron and the Examiner made it seem like a fare increase was definitely in the pipeline, though this is far from the case. Besides, fare increases on their own are unlikely to generate more than a short-term gain in funds for public transit, and may actually be counter-productive.

As fares increase, ridership goes down since many choice riders end up using other options to get where they need to go, while transit-dependent populations are left holding the short end of the stick. Discounted passes for seniors, youth and the disabled as well as the low-income Lifeline pass do help soften the blow a bit, but can’t fill in all the gaps. Simply looking to the farebox to raise revenues is shortsighted and a quick way to a downward spiral of decreasing revenues and declining service. As SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director Dave Snyder said, “it is critical that we come up with funding sources other than just fare increases.”

The “Blue Ribbon” panel has vowed to continue its work, with at least one more meeting scheduled and a desire to come up with a full report on the options they examined. But even if the report is completed it may be too late to incorporate any suggestions into the MTA’s budget, which must be submitted for approval by the Board of Supervisors this summer.

And momentum may be waning. The panel has already lost its vice-chair, former MTA Board Member Peter Mezey, who lost his position in Newsom’s second term housecleaning. Stuart Sunshine, notorious for being in charge of MUNI during the fare hikes and service cuts of 2005, who was staffing the panel, has moved out of the Mayor’s office and into private sector. And panel Chair Ed Harrington, currently City Controller, is the Mayor’s pick to replace ousted PUC head Susan Leal. At the most recent meeting, only half of the panel members even attended.

The good news is that the broad coalition of labor, environmental, and community groups which came together last November to pass Proposition A will be able to use the work of a panel as a starting point for a discussion about how to bring MUNI the revenue it needs. In the absence of leadership from the Mayor’s panel, it will be up to activists to lead the way, and the result is likely to be an outcome that is truer to San Francisco’s transit-first policy.