Once again, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is in a budget crisis – and we are told another round of fare hikes and service cuts are inevitable, making San Francisco Muni even less accessible. But can we really pin the blame on the recession, or is the culprit a transit commission entirely appointed by the Mayor? Voters passed Muni reform in 1999 and 2007 to “de-politicize” the MTA, but now our transit policy is subject to the whims of one politician – Gavin Newsom. Muni’s $129 million deficit means the MTA Board is exploring painful choices that would cripple service, but $80 million of the problem is “work orders” from other City Departments. Newsom directed every agency to trim its budget, and some unloaded it on Muni by charging for services done for free. The Board of Supervisors Budget Committee will hold a hearing today to look into it, but ultimately the Mayor appoints and controls who’s at MTA. Muni could have also gotten an extra $38 million in federal stimulus funds, if they had sent someone to lobby the regional transit body who made those decisions. But with Newsom hoping to see the funds used for other purposes, Muni sat silent. Meanwhile, AC Transit – whose commissioners are elected by Alameda County voters – fought for that slice of the pie.

Two weeks ago, public health and human services employees directly held a march to protest further City budget cuts. Brenda Barros, who works at SF General Hospital, explained “the past cuts that have already gone through were just enough so doctors and nurses can’t do their jobs correctly.” With further cuts on the horizon, the public sector will become more and more impotent at handling a pressing social need.

You can say much of the same thing about Muni – whose budget cuts have meant higher fares, reduced hours, and more overcrowded buses so the transit agency can’t fulfill its basic mission. A “public” transit agency should provide quality bus service for those who have no other options. Without a reliable system that works and is affordable, the public sector yields its influence and control to private modes of getting around.

Yesterday’s MTA Board meeting was a depressing review of how it plans to close a $129 million gap – such as raising fares another 50 cents, and upping the Fast Pass beyond its already scheduled increases. There’s talk of eliminating crucial positions like twenty bus drivers, and 23 transit operators – i.e., the folks who make sure lines run efficiently, so you don’t have to wait 90 minutes for two buses to finally show up at once. Even jobs that raise revenue are being cut – like 28 fare inspectors, and 39 parking control officers.

Remember the Transit Effectiveness Project? Muni spent years doing a comprehensive review of its bus lines, and planned to eliminate lines that are too expensive and under-utilized – while beefing up service in places where demand is high. Now, to deal with the budget crisis, it’s “full speed ahead” on the former – but they can’t afford the latter. So while the 26-Valencia will be gone, you won’t see added service on the 14-Mission.

But this isn’t just a function of having to cut corners in a deep recession. Under Mayor Newsom’s directive, Muni has become a dumping ground for other City agencies to solve their budget woes. The Mayor instructed City departments to make 25% in savings, to deal with our mammoth deficit. Besides making their own set of budget cuts, a lot of departments “found” some extra revenue by sending Muni a bill.

Take, for example, the 311 Center – one of the Mayor’s trumpeted accomplishments. By far the most popular reason people use it is when they’re at a bus stop trying to figure out when the next bus is coming. So 311 is charging the MTA $7-8 million a year as a “work order.” The Police Department is asking Muni for $19 million, and DTIS wants $6-7 million. All told, the MTA is being charged $80 million – or two-thirds of its deficit – for a shell game that effectively robs Peter to pay Paul.

Muni should stand up for itself, with its Commissioners and top officials speaking out on this outrage. Tomorrow’s Budget Committee hearing at the Board of Supervisors is a good opportunity. But the Mayor appoints all the MTA Commissioners – giving it the same effective power as other city departments. It may technically be an “independent” body that was “de-politicized,” but Muni heads would step on a lot of toes to criticize.

And Newsom proved how petty and vindictive he can be to his appointees – when he fired Margaret Brodkin from the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF.) Brodkin never criticized the Mayor publicly, but she was a forceful advocate behind closed doors for her department. Because she fought too hard for DCYF, the Mayor let her go. Will the heads of Muni diligently fight to keep basic public transportation funds available?

I’m a little pessimistic. In February, Muni could have received an extra $38 million in federal stimulus funds – money it desperately needs now to avoid service cuts – if it had put up a fight at a regional meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC.) The body wanted to divert a pot of stimulus money intended for local transportation agencies – to fund a light-rail connecting Oakland Airport, and the “train box” for Transbay.

AC Transit – whose commissioners are elected by the voters – sent their top people at the MTC committee meeting, urging the transit body not to switch the funds. But MTA did not send anyone who could have spoken about the dire need for San Francisco Muni to get its share. Mayor Newsom has an appointee on the MTC, and his support for the Transbay “train box” is well known. Nobody at Muni was going to dare speak out.

San Francisco voters passed Prop A in November 2007 to give Muni an extra $26 million to go directly towards improving the transit agency. But if other City departments use the MTA as their ATM, it defeats the purpose. When the regional MTC wanted to take funds away from Muni, nobody at the transit agency bothered to complain. It’s clear that when Mayor Newsom’s agenda conflicts with Muni’s budget needs, transit-dependent riders lose. And for a City that prides itself on being “transit-first,” it’s an utter disgrace.