Rewrite the Muni budget

Newsom's foolish attempt to play chicken with the supervisors
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EDITORIAL Just one day after the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee voted to reject Mayor Gavin Newsom's Muni budget, the mayor's press flak, Nathan Ballard, reminded us of how deeply the Mayor's Office remains in budget denial.

"We are currently operating under the assumption that the supervisors will approve the MTA's sensible budget," Ballard told City Editor Steven T. Jones May 8. "If they reject the budget, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

That was a foolish assumption. At press time, seven supervisors had signed on as cosponsors to Board President David Chiu's bill rejecting the Municipal Transportation Agency budget proposal, and Sup. Bevan Dufty, an eighth vote, was among the Budget Committee members favoring rejection. Only seven votes were needed, so the MTA budget was dead by May 7 — and Newsom's refusal to recognize that was nothing more than a foolish attempt to play chicken with the supervisors. If the MTA fails to produce a new budget by the end of May, the current funding remains in effect — and that means the city's budget deficit is much worse. The mayor strategy seems to be aimed at blaming the supervisors instead of addressing the problem.

And the problem is serious — the MTA budget is a mess. It seeks to close a $129 million shortfall almost entirely on the backs of the riders through service cuts and fare hikes. Only 20 percent of the new revenue would come from higher downtown parking fees.

That's not just bad public policy for a transit-first city (the last thing San Francisco wants to do right now is discourage people from taking Muni), it's bad economics. Every time Muni raises fares, ridership drops. Typically, most of the riders come back eventually. But at a certain point — possibly at the proposed $2 level — further increases in cost will drive people away from the system, and that will end up costing Muni money. The alternative — charging more for parking, particularly downtown — has multiple benefits: most people who drive cars downtown are better off than the Muni riders and can afford to pay more — and if higher parking meter rates discourage driving, that's an excellent outcome.

The MTA is a creature of Proposition A, a 2007 transportation reform measure that was supposed to insulate Muni from political pressure — and guarantee the transit system more money. Newsom pushed for Prop. A and promised that the measure would guarantee Muni a $26 million additional funding stream that could be used to improve service. (He also promised — in writing — that he wouldn't use the fine print in Prop. A to try to privatize the taxi medallions). He's now gone back on both of those vows.

In fact, the budget put forward by Newsom's MTA appointees, and his $316,000 a year general manager, diverts a huge amount of Muni money to the Police Department, the mayor's pet 311 call center, and other city departments — far more than $26 million. That money goes for "work orders" — in other words, the cops get to suck money out of the Muni budget for doing what they're supposed to do anyway. And 311 charges Muni almost $2 every time someone calls to ask about bus service (even though 311 exists to help people find out about city services).

The mayor needs to quit his political games and direct the MTA to draft a new budget, quickly, that hits drivers harder than bus riders and dramatically trims the money used as a back-door subsidy for the cops and Newsom's call center. And the supervisors should make it clear that they won't approve any MTA budget until he fixes those problems. *

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