Muni riders at community workshops of the Transit Effectiveness Project last year were reassured at every meeting that improving reliability would be the first step toward any changes. The TEP process involved tremendous effort in soliciting opinions, crunching data, and rejiggering routes, and the results promised a new beginning for Muni. Now, riders face a downward spiral, and the word reliability has been forgotten.
Municipal Transportation Agency officials addressed a $129 million budget gap with a package of increased parking fees and fines, fare hikes of 33% to 50%, and service cuts. Approved on April 30, it now goes to the Board of Supervisors. No one disputes that Muni is in financial trouble or that much of the problem stems from the state’s abandonment of public transportation. It’s the agency’s willingness to stick it to riders that’s provoked outrage.
MTA reps who explained the financial situation at a public meeting on April 18 inadvertently revealed the agency’s biases. Chief financial officer Sonali Bose said that a proposed hike in parking fees for motorcycles had gotten a negative response, so the MTA backed down. Muni riders in the audience wondered if they should start wearing leathers to get listened to.
Blithe mention that several routes would run every 20 minutes instead of 10 ignored the problem of missed runs, which will become more frequent as a hiring freeze takes effect. A missed run on a 20-minute schedule means a rider could wind up waiting 40 minutes!
“Every day, a minimum of 10 vehicles don’t leave the bus depot. The MTA seems to act surprised, and they randomly miss runs, throwing everyone and everything off. Those ‘no outs’ tend to disproportionately affect the Mission Street lines,” said Manish Champsee of WalkSF.
Proposed route cuts were listed with what the MTA called “Alternative Service,” nearby lines to presumably absorb displaced riders. But this listing rarely mentioned any increase in that service. For example, the doomed #26’s alternative is the already crammed #14.
Other changes failed to account for topography or social needs. The #53 got the ax, and the #22, #19, and #48 are supposed to make up for its loss. But the #53 alone serves hilly streets through Potrero Hill’s public housing with connections to the 16th Street Safeway and BART. The alternatives involve a steep walk and a transfer.
Promises on transfers have also crumbled. TEP proposals to truncate lines for efficiency would have required more transferring, but riders were assured that this would not be a problem, as the buses being transferred to would run more frequently and reliably. Now that those ideas are out the window, the increased need to transfer will add more time and uncertainty.
The cumulative effect will be degradation of transportation options. The proposed hits to drivers and to transit riders are not proportional: Fare hikes and service cuts to riders will provide about four times the revenue that will come from increased fees and fines for parking. This imbalance is particularly galling to riders who, by not clogging the streets with individual autos, make life easier for drivers, whose cars then impede the buses.
MTA board members had shown some resistance to the package at a hearing on April 21. Some suggested that the 4.7% service cuts should be matched by a 4.7% cut in executive pay. Bruce Oka stated that he would not vote for a proposal that raised the cost of a Lifeline pass, which he called too expensive already. In the April 30 vote, the board supported riders who campaigned to keep the #39, whose “Alternative Service” was listed as “None.” Ultimately, however, they voted for huge fare hikes and destructive service cuts.
“Given the economic climate, the MTA needs to focus on operations and not use scarce resources for additional fancy infrastructure, high-paid consultants, or top management,” said Razzu Engen, an organizer with the Transit Justice Project.
But the agency has shown mysterious willingness to support boondoggles like the Culture Bus, which was yanked only after it had lost about half a million dollars. The argument that the City must cater to tourists fails to note that those tourists require an army of workers in the hotels and restaurants, who must get to their jobs, often at odd hours. No such concern is shown for them. Angry riders are asking where the leadership is.
“The MTA board of directors has not shown the spine needed to fulfill the intent of the voters to be independent of city government,” said Bob Planthold, a member of the TEP from the beginning. “They won’t challenge the mayor over the outrageous costs of the 311 service; they won’t talk of suing the police over millions of dollars in billing for services the public doesn’t see. The supervisors are now stuck with the fear of what happens if they reject this biased budget. In the end, those most in need get the least.”
Fran Taylor can be reached at email@example.com. This piece was first published for the May edition of the Mission Dispatch.