Pressure builds to save Muni

Frank Lara and other activists used T-shirts, flyers, and passionate testimony to send their messages on Friday.
Steven T. Jones

Widespread frustration with Muni service cuts and fare hikes – passionately expressed by the public on Friday at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency meeting that continues tomorrow (Tuesday, March 2, starting at noon in City Hall Room 400) – has prompted a surprisingly diverse backlash.

From angry, street-level progressive activists to the downtown-friendly San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), San Franciscans are criticizing the SFMTA’s budget plan (including the 10 percent service cuts approved on Friday, which could be revisited tomorrow) as short-sighted and unnecessarily divisive, prompting the biggest and most diffuse progressive organizing effort in years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” SFMTA spokesperson Judson True told me as he surveyed the huge, passionate crowd assembled for Friday’s meeting, adding, “It’s clear grassroots organizing is alive and well in San Francisco.”

It’s true that grassroots organizing helped with Friday’s massive turnout, with hundreds of people lined up to give almost five hours worth of public testimony, much of it expressing frustration with poor city leadership (particularly by Mayor Gavin Newsom and his appointed SFMTA board and director) and declining public services.

But these weren’t the talking points of a centrally organized effort, which is what’s so remarkable about this movement. While many progressive groups joined forces under the Transit Not Traffic banner (coordinated by MTA Citizens Advisory Board member Sue Vaughn and others), and there’s a new San Francisco transit riders union (coordinated by transportation activist Dave Synder), the huge turnout on Friday came also from disability rights groups, ethnically identified groups from the Mission and Chinatown, the Senior Action Network, San Francisco Tomorrow, the social justice group POWER, the antiwar ANSWER Coalition, and several other groups, with very little coordination among them.

“We are really seeing a diverse group of people arguing for transit justice,” said Marc Caswell of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which was part of the Transit Not Traffic coalition.

In fact, with Muni fares increasing and services declining since Newsom became mayor, a wide variety of groups seems to have figured out independently that there’s something seriously wrong with Newsom’s no-new-taxes approach to running the city, particularly given declining transit funding from the state and feds.

“These aren’t solutions. They’re just pitting one group against another,” said Frank Lara of the ANSWER Coalition, which opposes a proposal for extended parking meter hours, much to the chagrin of progressive groups who want motorists to help close the budget gap by giving up their free parking on Sundays.

One SPUR proposal also seeks to eliminate this pitting of groups against each other, listing as its biggest dollar proposal the elimination of work orders from the San Francisco Police Department, which would save $12.2 million per year, which the SFPD charges SFMTA for unspecified services that it has yet to document, despite agreeing to as part of last year’s budget deal.

When asked about the work order proposal, Newsom press secretary Tony Winnicker said doing so would make Muni less safe by discouraging officers from riding buses, saying such work orders were a “good accounting practice” rather than the budgetary shell game that progressive supervisors and SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf have called it.

“The gamesmanship with work orders has got to stop,” Metcalf told the Guardian, criticizing the SFMTA for cutting service across the board and raising fares for express bus service and cable cars. “They don’t have to do that and they shouldn’t do that. They just need some political courage right now.”

The next largest SPUR proposals are to charge $300 per year for disabled placards that allow drivers to park for free (which would raise $10 million per year) and to enforce existing city codes that require garages to charge by the hour rather than all day (which would raise $6.85 million), followed by Muni work rule changes that would need union approval.

Winnicker said Newsom was aware of the big turnout on Friday and the anger voiced by the crowd, telling us, “He understands people are concerned and he shares those concerns.” But rather than accepting that many people blame Newsom, Winnicker blamed Muni’s Transportation Workers Union for voting down about $5 million worth of wage concessions and work rule changes. Yet many speakers criticized Newsom’s finger-pointing on Friday, saying he and the SFMTA were too focused on targeting workers rather than the downtown corporations that Newsom has refused to adequately tax.

"There was already a fare increase last year, so for the low-income popular, this is major," Wing Hoo Leung, vice president of the Community Tenants Association, told me in Mandarin, translated by Tan Chow, an organizer with Chinatown Community Development Center. "In a bad economy, the low-income people can't get hit again and again. We need to cut from the top."

Tax measures will be a big part of tomorrow’s SFMTA discussion of the $100 million budget deficit looming for the next two years – such as a parcel tax, downtown transit assessment district, parking tax increase, or local vehicle license fee -- and several SFMTA board members agreed with the statement made Friday by Trustee Malcolm Heinicke that, “We need to look for other sources of revenue.”

Even Winnicker said Newsom acknowledges the need to discuss tax measures, even though he philosophically opposes them: “He understands that many things have to be on the table to close next year’s budget gap.”

But he’s far from advocating for any revenue-side solutions.

“The mayor doesn’t think the tax measures will have much public support,” Winnicker said. Yet progressive groups say that’s because Newsom has undermined people’s faith in local government and actively opposed tax increases rather than trying to make the case to the public that they’re needed to present public transit and other vital services.

“Newsom has to be out there fighting, one at the state level, and he needs to show some leadership here,” said Bob Allen of the group Urban Habitat. “I don’t want to hear Gavin Newsom say again that this is a transit-first city if he’s not going to do anything to support it.”

But Allen said that if Newsom and other city leaders made the case for new taxes to support transit and ran a strong campaign, “This city will support a ballot measure to protect Muni and expand it.”

Yet right now, he said one of the things frustrating low-income San Franciscans is there is a basic inequity between motorists and Muni riders: “If parking is going to be free on Sunday, transit should be free on Sunday. If parking is going to be free in the evenings, transit should be free in the evenings.”  

Newsom has long voiced opposition to extended meter hours, only recently softening that position slightly to possibly allow for a small pilot program for Sundays. But his appointed trustees might be willing to go even further, with Bruce Oka saying on Friday, “I know the mayor doesn’t like it, but it has to be tried.”