Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Transit Woes by the Bay

Although the San Francisco City Charter boasts a voter-approved "Transit-First Policy" (see Section 8A.115), the future of Muni service is uncertain thanks to a reported $128.9 million deficit. The SFMTA budget for FY09-10 is set to be submitted to the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors on May 1, yet the first public hearing to air the proposed deficit-solutions occurred yesterday at City Hall. The proposed solutions include lay-offs of Muni workers, increased fares, parking meter increases, and (you guessed it) service reductions. For more detailed descriptions of the proposals, go here.

Finding a solution to Muni's problems is no easy task. Some believe the Mayor is to blame. Others point to an increase in work orders from other city agencies. Commenters at yesterday's hearing railed against Muni's "bloated management" and "overpaid staff" (to much applause from the crowd), called for stricter fare enforcement, and generally protested the proposed service cuts. Although the MTA appears to be viewing this problem as a pure numbers game, the effect of reduced public transportation services will have an impact on the lives of San Franciscans that is hard to quantify.

As one who is relatively new to the SFMTA's budget problems, I cannot speak to the allegations of mismanagement or overpayment of Muni workers. I do believe, however, that SFMTA's budget problems cannot be fixed with the current myopic proposals to reduce service while simultaneously increasing fares. If the City of San Francisco is serious about its dedication to public transit, then it's time the City took action. The biggest threat to Muni is not the money that is lost by not charging 50c for transfers, but the hordes of drivers in private automobiles that crowd the city streets (especially during rush hour) and don't use Muni. At this point though, it's hard to place all the blame on the drivers. The streets are congested, the buses move slowly, and many crosstown trips require at least one transfer in addition to a good hour of travel time. Rather than just looking for ways to make the budget in 2010, Muni needs someone with the guts to look to 2020 or 2030, to seriously consider the mechanisms for increasing Muni ridership and discouraging automobile usage. Parking meter increases may be a step in the right direction, but a more focused tax on vehicle miles traveled in the City would be better. Ultimately, the SFMTA should focus on making Muni more attractive to potential riders. They could start with proposals to speed up service and make Muni a more realistic option for trips that do not neatly fit along a north/south or east/west route. More than money, the SFMTA needs strong leaders and a steady vision for the future that is not disrupted each time there is a momentary budget crisis.

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