The Board of Supervisors will get another crack at the MTA budget tomorrow, as a motion to reject it is back on the Full Board agenda. A compromise budget crafted last week between Board President David Chiu and the Mayor’s allies has been roundly criticized, and transit advocates believe that a more equitable Muni budget is possible. Supervisor John Avalos has proposed another $15 million in changes to keep fares low and save crucial service, and will hold a press conference today at 3:00 p.m. in front of City Hall with community groups. All eyes are now on Sophie Maxwell to see if she will “stick with the six,” giving the Board leverage to re-open negotiations with the MTA. Avalos is also introducing a Charter Amendment to have split appointments on the MTA Board, but such a measure failed miserably in November 2005. It might be a good tactic to negotiate a better Muni budget, but activists need a winning strategy if they’re going to take it to the ballot.

Avalos’ Budget Proposals

The Muni budget that passed the MTA Board (all of whom are appointed by the Mayor) betrayed the basic trust to bus riders: it (a) raised fares, (b) cut service, (c) pursued the corrupt “work orders” and (d) did not ask car drivers to truly “share the pain” of the budget crunch by raising parking revenue. An attempt to negotiate a better deal at the Board of Supervisors was not fair or equitable because Gavin Newsom manipulated the process to create a bad outcome. Bus fares are still going up, service is still being cut, work orders continue to be a problem, and drivers are not paying their fair share.

Which is why John Avalos has taken the lead for a second “round” – as the Board seeks to craft a better deal at tomorrow’s meeting. His proposal would allow for some fare hikes, but not as dramatic or devastating as currently planned. Cash fares would go up from $1.50 to $1.75 (rather than $2), the Adult Fast Pass would climb to $55 (but not hit riders with another hike to $60) and the Senior / Disabled / Youth Pass would go up to $15 (but not hit these riders twice in a year by going up to $20.)

The Lifeline Pass, which everyone agrees does not work for low-income riders because it’s too expensive, would go down to $20 – as plans are underway to bring it down to $30. As for bus service, it would restore the 53 line to the Potrero Hill housing projects and the 67’s segment to Safeway – ensuring that these bus lines continue to serve the City’s poorest residents.

I would also like to see $5 million into service enhancements – so that Muni doesn’t betray the promise of the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP). But these proposals are a step in the right direction, and if implemented would make Muni’s budget acceptable. Avalos’ proposed changes would cost approximately $14.8 million, which has to come from somewhere.

The $14.8 million in revenue would mostly come from parking, including a prior effort the MTA Board scrapped to have parking meters on Sundays and up to 10:00 pm on weeknights. But Avalos’ proposal would limit this just to the City’s “inner core,” which should alleviate some neighborhood concerns. Downtown parking fees will also go up an extra 50 cents, and City garage rates will more closely match the “market rate” of private garages – because parking should not be subsidized.

Some of these parking changes will be controversial. But keep in mind that under Muni’s current budget proposal, bus riders are being asked to pay four times as much in fare hikes to cut the deficit – than car drivers in the form of higher parking fees. If we are truly going to call ourselves a “transit-first” City, a little bit of equity must be in order.

It All Comes Down to Maxwell

John Avalos has submitted an excellent blueprint for re-opening negotiations with the Mayor and MTA to craft a better budget. But it will be for naught unless Supervisor Sophie Maxwell is willing to be a “seventh vote” to reject the MTA budget, giving the Board leverage to force Gavin Newsom at the table. And there’s a lot for Maxwell to support in this proposal. Service on the 53 directly affects her constituents in Potrero Hill, and making the Lifeline pass more affordable will help many District 10 residents.

Last week, Maxwell told transit advocates that she was hesitant about parking meters on Sundays – because “there should be one day” where people don’t have to pay for parking. Of course, bus riders don’t enjoy the privilege of having “one day” to ride Muni for free. And Avalos’ proposal carefully limits this expansion to the “inner core,” which means parking in the neighborhoods would be largely unaffected.

Muni Charter Amendment Questionable

Avalos solicited input from various community groups about what they wanted to see in his MTA budget package. But he also plans to introduce an MTA Charter Amendment at tomorrow’s Board meeting that may not share the same level of support. Because all the MTA Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, there is currently no accountability in the process – and Avalos hopes to get “split appointments” between the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors, just like prior efforts with the Planning and Police Commissions.

The problem is, however, we tried such an effort back in November 2005 – and the voters rejected it by an embarrassing 2-1 margin. There were many reasons why Proposition D failed. First, activists were distracted working to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election on the same ballot – but even that can’t explain the margin. Second, there was much complacency among progressives – because past efforts to weaken the Mayor’s power on Commission appointments had been successful. But that was under Willie Brown (who voters felt was too powerful), not under Gavin Newsom.

It may be too soon to rush a Charter Amendment through without sufficient input. Having an elected MTA Board should be considered, and whether it should be at-large or by district. Or giving the Board of Supervisors a “line-item veto” on the Muni budget, so that there’s no pressure to take an “up-or-down” vote on the entire package – and risk total rejection.