Muni cuts spark popular backlash

Photo by Charles Russo

Tomorrow’s big showdown over the latest round of Muni service cuts and fare hikes seems to be galvanizing transit supporters and giving birth to a rejuvenated progressive advocacy effort, including a new transit riders union led by noted alternative transportation advocate Dave Snyder. And that hearing is just a prelude to a taxi medallion privatization plan that will be heard in the afternoon and another big Muni budget blowout on Tuesday.

“We are asking everyone to show up and complain about the mayor and the MTA board’s failure to prepare for this and find alternatives to the drastic cuts they’re proposing,” Snyder told us, referring to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s plans to close a $16.9 million mid-year budget deficit (which is what's left after the $11 million from the taxi permit selloff, which the MTA has already figured into the budget) almost entirely on the backs of Muni riders, who have already seen their fares double since Gavin Newsom became mayor in 2004.

The hearing is Friday at 9 a.m. in City Hall Room 400. That afternoon, Snyder will meet with a broad-based advisory board that he’s assembled to lead (and to name) the new transit riders union that he’s been working on for months, and his tentative plan is to formally launch it on Monday.

For now, those interested in being part of this fledgling organization can sign up here. The new organization is being launched as the MTA board moves from tomorrow’s controversial meeting into another one on Tuesday, that one to start grappling with the huge budget deficit the agency will still face in the next fiscal year that begins in June, even if it’s successful in closing this year’s.  

Snyder is probably just the right person to lead this effort, having directed the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in its formative years before founding Transportation for a Livable City (now known as Livable City) and then becoming the transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a post he left last year during a controversy surrounding Snyder’s appointment to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District Board of Directors. 

Snyder said Newsom and the MTA board have failed to plan for this foreseeable funding shortfall, saying they should have accelerated plans for extended parking meter hours (particularly ending the free parking on Sundays), a congestion pricing program, a local vehicle license fee, or measures like a gas tax, transit assessment fee, or a parcel tax – all of which the MTA board and mayor could have placed on the ballot for voter approval. Instead, they did nothing and are now pursuing a 10 percent reduction in Muni service, which could start a disastrous downward spiral.

“They need a stable, long-term funding source,” Snyder told us. “The charter actually says they’re supposed to aggressively seek new sources of funding.”

MTA spokesperson Judson True said that neither tax increases nor extended parking meter hours among the proposed solutions for Friday’s discussion, but they’re likely to be raised as part of a longer term strategy during the meeting on Tuesday: “It’s likely that the various tax measures will be part of that discussion.”

That could include reviving the extended parking meter hours proposal, which the MTA board heard last year during a rancorous public meeting, directing staff to do more community outreach on it. As True said, “We did a fair amount of outreach on it so we’ll see where the discussion goes on the two-year budget.”

Snyder is hardly alone in his local advocacy for budget solutions that spare Muni from deep cuts. In fact, the Transit Not Traffic coalition that successfully pushed the 2007 MTA reform measure Prop. A – which includes the Bike Coalition, Livable City, Walk SF, and other progressive groups – has revived itself in advance of tomorrow’s meeting and will be flying outside City Hall starting at 8:30 a.m.

There is broad support on the left for seeking more funding from drivers and the general public, but it’s not unanimous. The anti-war ANSWER Coalition frustrated many of its usual progressive allies last year by organizing against extended meter hours, claiming it was a hidden tax of low-income motorists. And Newsom has stubbornly resisted supporting new revenue measures, even in the face of unprecedented budget shortfalls, which makes the quest to win the support of two-thirds of voters difficult.

But the popular outrage that’s been expressed in recent weeks about how much Muni has been cut, year after year since Newsom became mayor, will likely put pressure on him and the MTA board (all of whom Newsom appointed) to pursue new revenue options.

True sounded weary as we spoke, noting how much anger has been expressed at the recent series of town hall meetings. “We know where people stand on these proposals,” True said. “The board is going to have some tough decisions to make, clearly.”